Urban Dynamics


Two images of non-monumental structures, each with monumental tales to tell…

Both photos were taken in the late-1980s on 6×4.5cm transparency film using a light-weight, fixed-lens, wide-angle (28mm-equivalent) Fuji roll-film camera which featured manual focusing by estimation of distance and depth-of-field and a very accurate built-in manual light meter, so accurate, that when using it, I almost never bracketed exposures, not even when the camera was loaded with low-dynamic-range, transparency film. I miss the camera and I miss the 3:4 format ratio of its output.

Above: The one-time Corfu Diner on 10th Avenue and West 18th Street in lower Manhattan, a stereotypical Greek-owned, railway-car inspired diner, and a hangover from a past age when the Hudson River docks still flourished and provided work and ample venues for heavy-eating and hard-drinking to stevedores, truckers, warehouse workers, and others.  I haven’t walked down lower 10th Avenue for many years and have no idea if the Corfu Diner still stands, whether vacant or open in a new incarnation. Any updates are welcome, thus. (Note the slogan on the orange-painted truck parked to the background at the left side of the photo: “Schleppers, Moving Storage, Never a No Show.” The 1980s saw the rise of  independent non-unionized moving companies in New York.  Many, like Schleppers — Yiddish for “draggers” or “carriers” — and Moishe’s were owned by recently arrived Israelis, legal and illegal, and staffed by their compatriots, mostly young, strong, and well pumped-up for long hours of lifting and carrying with liberal rations of cocaine.  Other independent movers provided women with entree into this formerly all-male domain.  The memorable name of one of the first such  company: Mother-Truckers!)

Below: The last of several World-War-II-era US military recruiting booths (this one, if I am correct, originally built for the Navy, per its streamlined art deco take on the bridge and stack of a ship, and later transferred to the Marines) that stood on the Fordham Road overpass spanning the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.  (In the background, the Wagner Building, a 1930s office block, one of a piece with the many great art deco apartment and commercial buildings that line the Concourse from 161st St. northward).  From the early-1940s on, generations of neighborhood young people — Jews, Germans, Italians, Poles, and Irish, followed by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and African-Americans — volunteered at this and the other booths to fight America’s wars, just and cynical, against enemies real and invented. Some volunteered out of idealism and others for adventure, to avoid prison, or to escape into the larger world and begin life anew.  Many returned alive, be it unscathed or maimed; many others, however, had their lives cut short.



Street corners.  Anchoring points in the urban landscape.  Places to pause, linger, turn, or confront unexpected vistas.  Apt metaphors for the start of a new year.  Places devoid of meaning from the vantage points of automobiles.

Above and below: Two seemingly nondescript street corners in Istanbul, 2014.

At the top: An intersection in Gümüşsuyu near Taksim — a 1920s apartment house, a late-nineteenth-century neighborhood mosque, and a high-rise cube under construction. Straight ahead, a 45-degree plunge into the quarter of Fındıklı; a turn to the left, and a grid of steep side-streets and concrete stairways wending down to the Bosporus.

At the bottom: A hard-left-turn upwards past a rarely-used sidewalk, a recent generic apartment block, and the wall of a centuries-old cemetery at the edge of Hasköy on the Golden Horn, photographed late one Sunday afternoon at a moment when the roadway was free of its usual, near-continuous, high-speed stream of rattling bus, truck, and automobile traffic



Ottoman çeşme (water fountain), Kasım Paşa quarter, Istanbul, 2013. Fuji x100. Click to enlarge.

In the Kasım Paşa neighborhood of Istanbul, near to the shoreline of the Golden Horn: A simple çeşme (water fountain) flanked by a beverage dispenser so ubiquitous and  recognizable that it requires no explanation.

The pattern of the relief on the marble face of the çeşme and the columns to the left and right of the inscription above it, lead me to the very amateur guess that the çeşme dates from the late-18th century.  (The oddly perpendicular entablature appears to be a later impromptu addition or repair.) In a no less amateur way, I would date the Coca-Cola machine at the right of the image to the late-20th or early-21st century.

If memory serves me right, in one of his scores of publications, Halil İnalcık, a leading historian of the Ottoman period, famous both for his work and for having turned 100-years-old this year, once held that the provision of a comprehensive water supply and distribution system — from reservoirs to aqueducts to gravity-fed neighborhood outlets and fountains for ritual washing in the courtyards of the great Sultanic and smaller neighborhood mosques that dot Istanbul — was a defining feature of Sultan Suleiman the Lawgiver’s 16th-century project of reshaping the Ottoman capital as an “Islamic City.”

As to the development and worldwide availability and popularity of Coca-Cola: This is a long story in and of itself, best saved for treatment in a another context.

Garden of the Seminary of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Lozenets quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, late April, 2015. Fuji X100 with -1.4 wide angle converter. Click to Enlarge.

Garden of the Seminary of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Lozenets quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, late-April, 2015. Fuji X100 with -1.4 wide angle converter. Click to Enlarge.

In a recent series of posts about Sofia, Bulgaria, I focused on the present-day appearances of the exteriors of Soviet-era, brutalist-style, prefabricated concrete-panel apartments block complexes built in the 1970s and 1980s, and on implications thereof re: issues of public and private space and of the nature of infrastructure.  However, Sofia is more than mere concrete.

Urban paradoxes

Sofia is a paradoxical city. Over the last century-and-a-quarter its population has grown by a factor of 100, from less that 20,000 to almost two million.  It is one of Europe’s most compact and densely populated cities — a potential advantage in terms of energy efficiency and non-automotive mobility, if and when properly capitalized upon.  Not least, Sofia is also one of Europe’s greenest cities — in terms of its tree-lined streets and unusually high ration of green-space to built-space.  Expansive parks, heavily-wooded and well-manicured, anchor the north, south, east, and west cardinal points of the city. Smaller parks dot the its and a greenbelt circumscribes its periphery.

Sofia’s parks were cornerstone features of a city plan drawn-up off-site in Berlin by the Nazi German architect Adolf Müssmann during the years of Bulgaria’s venal 1930s/1940s alliance with Hitler’s Germany.  The plan, by the way, was so foreign to the nature of Sofia and so imbued with Hitler’s visions for Berlin that it alienated Sofia’s otherwise quite pro-German municipal authorities and was in large part ignored.  After World War II, dedication to park space were the only elements of Müssmann’s concept that the newly-installed Communist regime retained in Sofia’s first post-war city plan drawn up in 1948. In the decades since the fall of Communism in 1989, shady property and real estate development deals have eaten away at the edges of Sofia’s once-ample green-space.  More recently, however, the green-space that remains appears, year by year, to be better and better maintained and more fully utilized.

Cultic gardens

Pictured above and below are two of Sofia’s smaller parks.  Both are the creations of religious traditions that emerged from the late-nineteenth scramble to create, shape, and give legitimacy to a Bulgarian national identity and to create new, vernacular-language, and supposedly indigenous spiritual spaces as alternatives to the once-ubiquitous power of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in what is now Bulgaria.

Seminary …

In the photo above: The garden of the Theological Seminary of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The autocephalic Bulgarian church was reconstituted in 1870 by a firman (writ) of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, in part as a concession to Bulgarian aspirations for political, cultural, religious, and linguistic autonomy.

The clerical buildings in the background of the photo tell a story of their own.  They were designed is what is retrospectively called the “Bulgarian National Style” — actually an  eclectic amalgam of Moorish Revival, Secessionist, neo-Baroque ,Jugendstil, and supposedly neo-Byzantine elements characteristic of the work of Friedrich Grünanger, an Austrian-Hungarian architect who spent the bulk of his career in Sofia and who designed a number of the city’s iconic structures including, in addition to the Seminary, the city’s central bath house and what is now Sofia’s one remaining synagogue.

The supposedly neo-Byzantine elements that gave  facades of Grünanger’s edifices their ostensible “Bulgarian National” character are horizontal courses of glazed-tile-work meant to simulate horizontal courses of brick interspersed between and cushioning courses of stone, a structural and decorative feature that was actually a signature, not of Byzantine architecture. but of the architecture of the Ottoman Turks, the non-Christian, “foreign” tradition that the Bulgarian National Style was meant to supplant and to obliterate from memory.

Grave of a mystic …

In the photo below: The carefully tended garden surrounding the grave of the late-19th/early-20th-century Bulgarian religious syncretist and mystic visionary, Peter Deunov.  Deunov, a son of one of the first clerics of the reconstituted Bulgarian Orthodox Church, studied at a Methodist seminary in the United States but, following his return to Bulgaria did not enter the ministry.  Instead, he founded a nature-oriented spiritual movement of his own, one that remains active and vibrant to the present day.  Deunov’s journey from belief to belief was not atypical of the experimental searching for new religious and political identities characteristic of urban Bulgarians of his generation. Izgrev (tr. “The Dawn”), the suburban neighborhood surrounding the garden, was founded as a colony by Deunov and his disciples in the early decades of the twentieth century.  The Deunov garden is one of the lushest, well kept, and peaceful green spots in Sofia — this the result of the voluntarism and sense of community of those who maintain it. May it remain that way.

Garden of the followers of Deunov, Izgrev quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, late April, 2015. Fuji X100 with -1.4 wide angle converter. Click to Enlarge.

Garden of the followers of syncretic mystic Peter Deunov, Izgrev quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, late-April, 2015.  At the center, Deunov’s grave. Fuji X100 with -1.4 wide angle converter. Click to Enlarge.

Kurtuluş, Istanbul, 2013. Fuji X100. Click to enlarge.

Kurtuluş, Istanbul, 2013. Fuji X100. Click to enlarge.

In the midst of unseasonably cold and gray weather, an image from a springtime past: greenery bursting forth from concrete, and laundry emerging from houses, along a backstreet and stairway on the rise from the valley of Dolapdere to the ridge-top neighborhood of Kurtuluş — long ago known by its Greek name, Tatavla, and once the realm people of modest means from Istanbul’s traditional “minorities:” Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. (The Greeks were forced out a half-century ago; many Armenians and some Jews remain.) The bay-windowed house in the center appears to be a surviving traditional-style Ottoman-era family residence subdivided into apartments and with its original wooden facade covered by layers of plaster.  The children standing in the foreground and seated mid-distance are quite likely Kurds, recent arrivals to the backstreets of Kurtuluş from the east of Anatolia.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/+1.4 lens converter. Click to enlarge.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/+1.4 lens converter. Click to enlarge.

Mondrian meets Dorian Gray: Patterns of neo-liberal disregard

The photos above and below not only capture the accidental Mondrian-like effect of relegation of the maintenance of building envelopes to individual tenants, they also reveal a Dorian-Gray’s-like picture of the inefficiencies of neo-liberalism and the cumulative effects of decades of rising economic inequality and shirking of collective investment in an important component of the infrastructure that enables and sustains us.

Thoughts on infrastructure in general and building exteriors in particularly:

Infrastructure has been a recurring theme throughout the twists and turns of my eclectic work-life: Subway transportation,* the third city water tunnel, and green infrastructure in my native New York; airports, harbors, and inter-modal transportation nodes in the Netherlands; telecommunications and “smart” workplaces in Western and Central Europe; monitoring of infrastructure projects in the broader European context; and the history of infrastructure in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire.

A broad view …

My view of infrastructure is a broad, social-democratic one; a take that does not limit infrastructure to the usual narrow scope of roads, bridges, tunnels, etc. but that zooms out to include educational processes and facilities, health care delivery systems, the urban natural environment, and public housing — in other words, all that is critical to human activity and survival and implementation of which is beyond the reach of individual users and the efficacy of for-profit “entrepreneurial” activity (i.e. the so-called “market”) and outside of simple models of enterprise-based accountancy.

Envelope as infrastructure …

Building exteriors are infrastructure. The upgrading and maintenance of the legacy built environment are not just matters of patch-work attempts to achieve  individual comfort and moderately lower energy bills.  Attention to building envelopes is crucial to effective energy conservation society-wide, the slowing of climate change, and the reducing of dependencies on profit- and politically-motivated energy producers.  As a side effect, it removes the visible stigmata of who can and cannot afford to insulate their dwellings.

Societal glue …

Across-the-board attention to building exteriors provides societal glue.  The inefficient patchwork of apartment by apartment insulation is a sign of societal failure and ideologically-motivated narrowing of the responsibilities of governments, communities, and even tenants’ councils. In Eastern Europe, it is a visible sign of the abandonment of “we” in accordance with the cynical dictum of Margaret Thatcher and her like that “… there is no society.”  Worldwide, we now foot the bill for such idiocy.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/-1.4 lens converter. Click to enlarge.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/-1.4 lens converter. Click to enlarge.

Success …

The mass construction of panel-block housing in the former Soviet bloc was a strategy for creating low-cost housing during the post-war period of massive migration to cities, constraints in housing stock, and minimal availability of resources.  The aesthetic merits of such housing might remain open to debate but among the the practical result in Sofia, for example, was that by the final years of the communist period more than 80% of the population was housed in dwellings to which they had clear title of ownership, a major achievement by any account.

And failure …

The design and implementation of panel-block buildings was achieved according to a short-sighted logic that has been unsustainable for decades.  On the positive side, the panel bloc approach cut costs through standardization and modular prefabrication.  On the negative side, however, it gave no attention to insulation, heat retention, or cooling through shading.  The period of mass construction of panel block housing in Sofia was congruent with a period of nuclear power and nominal charges for electricity consumption.  Thus, if rooms were cold, one simply plugged in a few electric convection heaters.  And, if enough heat was not retained, one simply turned up the heaters up another notch and run them longer.  As to improving insulation: One could always cover one’s single-glazed windows with sheets of newspaper.

A remedy unlikely to effect a cure …

I do not follow news from Bulgaria closely  but in a conversation last week I heard that one-by-one private insulation of individual apartments recently has been made illegal.  Also, it seems, there are now European-financed programs for the insulation and renovation of apartment building exteriors.  But, as always, there’s is a rub, things turn out not to be so simple.  To qualify for European-financing, buildings must first be organized as legal entities, this requiring the assent of each and every apartment title-holder.  Also, residents must contribute a portion of total costs. Not least, the organization of such requires good-will towards one’s neighbors and familiarity with the law, as well as a degree of experience with navigating official channels.  A single hold-out or contrarian can block the process.  Thus, available funds flow more readily to smaller buildings with fewer and more prosperous and educated residents, rather than to  higher-need towering apartment blocks with scores upon scores of apartments in the lower-income neighborhoods of the city.  For the moment, thus, it is uncertain whether the remedy is likely to effect a cure.



* Specifically, subsidized, affordable subway fares as a means for ensuring work-forces and customers to the private sector, for maintaining well-trafficked streets, and drawing the city’s ethnically and economically diverse population out of their homes and into cultural institutions.  Coincidentally, a similar argument was recently advanced by infrastructure advocate and scholar Alex Marshall.  Marshall’s excellent book The Surprising Design of Market Economies contains a passage about the social nature of infrastructure that may (or may not) have had its origin in an approach to the definition infrastructure that I shared with him during a conversation at the Regional Plan Association in New York in 2010.


Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/+1.4 lens converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Photographic footnote: The wrong tools for the job

On the basis of the photos above, absolutely nobody — me included! — would ever confuse me with the likes of, say, Andreas Gursky!  Indeed, the photos above were taken with the wrong tools in the wrong way and then processed in a manner no less inappropriate.  I’ll explain …

First, each of the photos was taken hand-held rather that tripod-mounted, a self-deceiving arrogance when working with strong verticals and horizontals and when confronted with a large two-dimensional object to be positioned parallel to the film- (or sensor-) plane.  Second, the photos were taken from ground-level with the camera pointed upwards rather than from a neighboring building at a height roughly to half the height of the subject.

The result? An amalgam of vertical and horizontal distortions (keystoning, pitch, yaw, etc.) beyond the reach of the correctional powers of image processing software, especially when working within the small confines of a laptop screen. In Lightroom, for example, one can easily correct for vertical distortion and rotate an image, but add horizontal adjustments plus some compensation for barrel or pincushion distortion to the mix and the shapes within an image begin to contort and vertical and horizontal lines to squiggle — and this atop the irregularities and lack of true verticals and horizontals in the subject itself, in the case of panel block buildings the results of attention to speed rather than precision during construction combined with the effects of gravity and the elements as the years pass.

So, for now, I’ll view the images above as “studies” and next time will head out with my tripod, my old folding field camera fitted with a lens and film back, or with my ever older combination of a legacy Nikon analogue body and perspective-correcting shift lens. In the meanwhile, my excuses.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/-1.4 lens converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/-1.4 lens converter. Click on image to enlarge.


More Accidental Aesthetics of Insulation

Above and below: Further to my last post, three more images of the accidental aesthetics of the downward relegation of building-envelope maintenance and insulation of legacy structures — one of the major pressure points for achieving heat and energy conservation in the built environment worldwide — from national  governments to regional authorities, to municipalities, to tenants’ councils and cooperatives, and, in the end, to (“the-buck-stops-here!”) those individual residents with the cash or credit to insulate the external walls of their apartments on their own.  The serendipity of the visual outcomes belies the inefficiency and absurdity of apartment-by-apartment solutions to what is a serious energy conservation, environmental, and quality-of-life issue worldwide.

Murals: For Whom and Why?

In my last post, I asked any and all who happened to stumble onto this site to share with me whatever they might know about about who were responsible for the giant murals that have appeared on, among other large surfaces in Sofia, the formerly-bare lateral walls of Soviet-era concrete panel block apartment buildings in several neighborhoods.  I received two responses:

The first was an email from Sofia green-architect, urban activist, and restorer of traditional wood-fired baking ovens, Martin Mikush. Martin pointed me to this 20-minute video on the work of one group of muralists. The video is beautifully shot and carefully tracks the entire mural-painting process — from initial sketches, to scaffold building, to the masterful painting itself —  but all this becomes overwhelmed by repetitive interspersed vignettes interspersed portraying the self-styled “hipness” and narcissistic “campy” antics of the artists themselves.  Only in a couple of cases of lovely murals portraying themes from nature, do the artists share and explain their intents and  searches for subject matter.  For the rest, the video seems a self-congratulatory celebration of the artists’ cultivated hipness.  The film says nothing about the residents of the buildings and neighborhoods that provide them with their canvases — neither about residents’ approval of, participation in, nor reactions to the artists’ seemingly well-funded efforts.  Indeed, much of the video appears to have been shot in off-hours when the streets are uncharacteristically empty and void of the usual streams of passersby.  The only public reaction to the murals included in the video are a few enthusiastic words from a parked taxi driver. In the end, the video is more self-promotional than documentary.

Apparently the video, the website on which it appears, and the mural project itself were funded by an “NGO” (a so-called “non-governmental organization”) in this case one funded by Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland, of all places.  One of the ironies in Eastern Europe in the more than quarter-century the collapse of the old Soviet Union and its client governments is that many functions and responsibilities have devolved from governments to non-governmental organizations that are in no ways grass-roots but, rather, are funded by foreign governments with their own values and agendas, and conceived and run by locals having a sufficient strong witch’s-brew of competence, nerve, connections, personal agendas, and knack for self-promotion to apply for and win such grants.

Each time I walk past the murals that I’ve posted photos of on this site, I wonder whether provisions were made to insulate walls before murals were applied. I also try to imagine what the walls on which the murals are painted will look like next year or after five years or ten.  Will the visual fields of neighborhood residents be confronted with expanses of sadly-peeling paint and the faded remains of images that were once novel but that long since have become tiresome? Have the donors and artists made provisions for maintaining the murals or periodically painting them, either with a fresh coat of paint to allow eyes to rest or with the works of other artists?  Or, after all the fun, publicity, and  self-congratulatory back-patting, will the artists have moved on to new opportunities for self-expression and career-building and the donors to larger budgets and new disbursements, thus leaving residents of buildings and neighborhoods involved with the tattered legacies of the no-longer-timely visions of others?  I’ll write more about this if/when answers emerge.  Again, any and all hints, links, and contrary opinions are welcome.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/+1.4 lens converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/+1.4 lens converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Internets Celebrities to the Rescue

It shouldn’t have surprised me that another part of the (to me) puzzle of the provenance of the Sofia murals was cleared-up in a flash by a comment posted from New York by Rafi Kam.  Rafi pointed out three apartment block murals indeed had been vetted and approved by local authorities. He also sent links to sites that reveal the provenance of murals portrayed in each of the three photos I’ve posted.  The girl holding the mystery gift is by the internationally active Polish street-art duo Etam Cru. The smoker and the urban creature are by a Bulgarian artist, Bozko.

At the moment, in a bit of longer-form writing plus photographic documentation I am trying to place such murals in the context of evolving concepts of public space and divisions of public and private realms in Sofia and elsewhere. I wonder if the towering projections of the subjective visions of Etam Cru and Bozko divorce residents from their surroundings or unite them in a sense of shared ownership. Another, power-related, issue lurks in the background: the neighborhood in which the murals are painted was for long one of Sofia’s lower income and poorly maintained quarters.  Do the building murals add value to the lives of the residents or do they represent a sort of artistic colonialism and appropriation of space by the culturally empowered?  I’m not yet sure which.

Rafi Kam, by the way, together with Dallas Penn, is the on-camera side of the urban culture gadfly team Internets Celebrities (slogan: “kicking truth to the online youth”). By the way, that’s indeed internets in the plural, this out of homage to a celebrated malapropism by a master of malapropism, George Bush.  Among the Internets Celebrities’ many  works is the short video Bronx Bodega, a hilarious but very much to the point tour of the once emblematic  Puerto Rican and Domican bodega corner grocery stores of New York City’s poorer neighborhoods, neighborhoods under-served by food retailers and by everything else for that matter.  I always recommend Bronx Bodega as an essential part of the canon of urbanism, and as a slyly humorous work of comic improvisation as well.

A Virtual Plate of Chicharron

The Internets Celebrities now ride through cyberspace and the NYC subways in their latest avatars as the Food Warriors.  In addition to the coincidence of Rafi holding the answer to the provenance of murals in Sofia, here’s a second, culinary, coincidence proving that not only do great minds think alike but that great gourmands binge alike and great New Yorkers explore alike.  My very first click on the Food Warriors’ website brought me to their recent account of a visit to La Reina del Chicharron in Washington Heights, a place that has many times caused me to salivate while walking past and that I regret never entered.  Thanks, thus, Food Warriors, for the virtual dreamed-of but never tasted meal!