Letters of Note: The Empire State Building

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Early-1932, after seeing a photograph in the New York Times of the great Helen Keller at the top of the newly-opened Empire State Building, Dr. John Finley wrote to her and asked what she really "saw" from that height. Keller — famously both deaf and blind from a very early age — responded with the incredible letter seen below, within which lies one of the greatest, most evocative descriptions of the skyscraper and its surroundings ever to have been written.

A truly beautiful letter.

[Link to Letters of Note: The Empire State Building]

The Bold Urban Future Starts Now

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America doesn’t do big projects anymore — we’re too broke, no one can agree on our priorities, that era of bold thinking is over.

That canard has been repeated so many times that it’s now accepted as gospel. Except it’s not true. In cities in every region of the country, pie-in-the-sky ideas are moving from brainstorm to blueprint to groundbreaking — and 2012 will prove it.

[Link to The Bold Urban Future Starts Now]

A clean, well-lighted place

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The Visitors’ Centre derives from a modernist tradition of pavilion-building that channels the Glass Boxes of Mies and Johnson. It employs many syntactical elements- a raised plinth, deep roofs on both sides to provide shade; the overhead plane held up by slim shining supports used sparingly, a sheltered glass enclosure of indeterminate function. The architecture gains significance by not kowtowing to the visual fakery that is the bane of most buildings that come up in the vicinity of important older structures.

[Link to A clean, well-lighted place]

Density is Natural

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The benefits of living close to other people are evident even to hunter-gatherers. Though their societies have changed over the millennia, studying characteristics of present-day hunter-gatherers can let us peer into the past. That’s what was done by three anthropologists—Marcus Hamilton, Bruce Milne, and Robert Walker—and one ecologist—Jim Brown. In the process, they seem to have discovered a fundamental law that drives human agglomeration. Though their survey of 339 present-day hunter-gatherer societies doesn’t explicitly mention cities, it does show that as populations grow, people tend to live closer together—much closer together. For every doubling of population, the home ranges of hunter-gatherer groups increased by only 70 percent.

[Link to Density is Natural]

Fresh Thrust to Urbanization

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India’s Census 2011 shows that one in every three Indians now lives in an urban habitat and that the move towards towns and cities has happened mostly in south India, contiguously from Maharashtra to Tamil Nadu.

According to the latest census, 31.2% of the total population lives in urban centres compared with 27.8% in 2001 and 25.5% in 1991. Of the 1.21 billion population, 833 million live in rural India while the remaining 377 million reside in urban India.



The fact that India has more than 1.21 billion people makes any percentage shift, let alone from 25% to 31% in two decades, for interesting times in the near future. Watch this space.

[Link to Fresh Thrust to Urbanization]

Liveable vs Lovable

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I spoke to Joel Kotkin, a professor of urban development, and asked him about these surveys. “I’ve been to Copenhagen,” (Monocle’s Number 2) he tells me “and it’s cute. But frankly, on the second day, I was wondering what to do.” So, if the results aren’t to his liking, what does he suggest? “We need to ask, what makes a city great? If your idea of a great city is restful, orderly, clean, then that’s fine. You can go live in a gated community. These kinds of cities are what is called ‘productive resorts’. Descartes, writing about 17th-century Amsterdam, said that a great city should be ‘an inventory of the possible’. I like that description.”

[Link to Liveable vs Lovable]