Every fifteen minutes or so, as I wrote this story, I moved my cursor northward to click on the disk in the Microsoft Word toolbar that indicates “Save.” This is a superstitious move, as my computer automatically saves my work every ten minutes. But I learned to use a computer in the era before AutoSave, in the dark ages when remembering to save to a disk often stood between you and term-paper disaster. The persistence of that disk icon into the age of flash drives and cloud storage is a sign of its power. A disk means “Save.” Susan Kare designed a version of that disk, as part of the suite of icons that made the Macintosh revolutionary—a computer that you could communicate with in pictures.
Paola Antonelli, the senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, was the first to physically show Kare’s original icon sketches, in the 2015 exhibit “This is for Everyone.” “If the Mac turned out to be such a revolutionary object––a pet instead of a home appliance, a spark for the imagination instead of a mere work tool––it is thanks to Susan’s fonts and icons, which gave it voice, personality, style, and even a sense of humor. Cherry bomb, anyone?” she joked, referring to the icon which greeted crashes in the original operating system. After working for Apple, Kare designed icons for Microsoft, Facebook, and, now, Pinterest, where she is a creative director. The mainstream presence of Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, emoji, and GIFS is a sign that the visual revolutionaries have won: online, we all communicate visually, piecing together sentences from tiny-icon languages.
My first cover story was a profile of Richard Meier for Graphis Magazine. It was 1998 and the Getty Center was about to open. The magazine did not have the budget to send me to Los Angeles, but it had photos, so I was dispatched to Meier’s office on Manhattan’s west side to see what I could get out of the man in an hour.
Meier has recently been in the news as the first major architect to be publicly accused of sexual harassment by a cadre of former employees. He is taking a six-month leave from the approximately 50-person firm that bears his name. He didn’t sexually harass me; I was only patronized.
In the first (white) Meier monograph, John Hejduk quotes Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick on the meaning of Meier’s signature color, white: “… the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, [serves] to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds.”
“Why did it catch on?” asks architecture critic and author Alexandra Lange. “Because people we searching for a way out of the dead end of Modernism. And this book, written by kind of the coolest kids in architecture, seemed like it might be that way out. By 1980, Learning from Las Vegas becomes a text assigned in every architecture school.”
Talking postmodernism on a new episode of 99 Percent Invisible
Walking north on Eighth Avenue toward Spyscape—or, as it styles its name, SPYSCAPE—which is billed as “New York’s Spy Museum,” my 10-year-old son spotted Foster + Partners’s Hearst Tower, its diagrid sparkling darkly in the sun.
“Is that it?” he asked, anxious to be there already.
And why not? Joseph Urban’s sand-colored Jazz Age base effectively camouflages the 2006 tower at street level; a clever spy might time-travel via a trip through the building’s revolving doors, shirking a double-breasted suit and fedora pulled low over the eyes for a stretchy sensor-laden catsuit, the better to remain inconspicuous.
Before we even entered Spyscape, we started to see ourselves as actors in a movie, no longer mother and son but players in a game of cat and mouse.
On February 27, former President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance at a meeting at Chicago’s McCormick Place, the sixth public presentation on the plans for his presidential center in the city’s Jackson Park, currently under city and federal review for its impact on the historic landscape and environment.
Obama’s unannounced speech seemed intended to calm the waters, which have become unexpectedly rough for what should have been smooth sailing: the first urban presidential center, in his adopted hometown, in an area that has long suffered from disinvestment.
“I decided I was not going to miss out on the fun tonight,” he announced, working the folksy side of his persona, dropping consonants and emphasizing his Chicago credentials as if the city had been the only possible choice. (He also considered sites in Honolulu and New York City.)
In Jacques Tati’s 1958 film, Mon Oncle, modernism bites back. The Arpels—mom, dad, son, dog—live in an up-to-date villa on an up-to-date suburban street. Monsieur Arpel commutes to his job at a plastics factory in an up-to-date automobile. Madame Arpel cooks with buttons and sprays (and yet still has to spend much of her time dusting).
What could go wrong?
Young Gerard and his pet desperately try to find something to do in an environment where everything has its place. Eventually they escape to the old part of the city where his uncle, Tati regular Monsieur Hulot, lives in an accidental building, made by accretion. There, they enjoy dirt, food, bicycles, life. Whenever Hulot encounters the new, whether in his sister’s kitchen or in his brother-in-law’s factory, something goes haywire. The interface has been designed for looks, not intuition, and he hasn’t been trained to follow their commands.