Now Cataloging: Kate Ascher

I’ve been looking at Kate Ascher’s work for the past few hours. Two of her textbooks, The Works: Anatomy of a City and The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper are in front of me. I’ve decided that The Works is the more interesting of the two, but both are very much worth reading.

The Works takes a horribly opaque and fiendishly abstract topic, i.e., the infrastructure of a big city (NYC in this case) and turns it into a story of how a few million people survive crammed into a densely confined geographic space. How strange is it (for example) that for ten million people living in the five boroughs, “normal” consists of flipping a switch to get light, or that milk comes put of a carton that magically appears at a particular kind of store? Water gushes from pipes on command, and you push a lever on a tank to flush away the remains of last night’s burrito supreme. Our primary form of personal transport isn’t our feet, but a box with wheels on the bottom. And without enough gas to put in that box, it’s about as useless as a bow tie on a fish. Forget crazy fads like television, radio, or the Intarwebs; how insane was indoor plumbing thought to be when introduced at the turn of the twentieth century? (“You’re gonna put what? Inside yer house? Are you crazy?”)

The point is that the 20,000 or so miles of streets, highways, boulevards, and roadway that I and million of others call home all came from somewhere, whether consortia of the business class desiring private access roads, a need to get lots of working class folks to and from jobs that were being brought into the city by new factories, or a need to get product from factories to markets. It’s easy to forget all that in the tedium of daily life here. For a simple experiment in contrast, try walking home from Manhattan to one of the outer boroughs one afternoon. That’ll make you appreciate the subway right quick.

To make her work a bit more accessible, Ascher organized the narrative into discrete sections:

Moving People: where we get a comprehensive view of the facts of the streets, subways, bridges and tunnels;

Moving Freight: all about mail freight, water freight, air cargo, and the evolution of markets and the space they inhabit;

Power: deals with the creation and delivery of electricity, natural gas and steam;

Communications: the history of NYC’s telephone and mail service, and the airwaves which carry everything from e-mail to porn at the speed of light;

Keeping it Clean: water, sewage, and garbage (gross–but necessary).

The Future is the final section, and it’s necessarily more speculative than the previous chapters. That said, Ascher makes the point that in the past, NYC had a less than unified structure. The roads, electric lines, gas lines and everything else all grew up independently of each other. Municipal planning as we understand it didn’t even exist until well after the Revolutionary War (Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, anyone?) and central planning of city services didn’t really get rolling until after the First World War. Ascher’s vision of the trend behind concurrent deployment of a city’s infrastructural needs–where telephone lines run along water mains, for example–is a fascinating one.

I won’t go too deeply into The Heights here except to say that this book deals with skyscrapers much the same way that The Works deals with the guts of NYC. The primary difference is that Ascher extends her scope to tall buildings located all over the world. Very specific business models, labor practices, and technology were developed in order to make such structures possible, never mind how we currently inhabit them. Additionally, it was only after certain city services became available on a truly citywide basis (plumbing, electricity) that even thinking about such things as the 102-story  Empire State Building became possible.

These are awesome textbooks, which read like mystery novels, and are worth a purchase for any library.


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