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I was intrigued by an article in the Summer 2007 issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review titled Discovering “Unk-Unks”, by John W. Mullins.

“Unk-Unks” is an engineering term that means unknown-unknowns.* Mullins, a professor at London Business School, focuses his article on entrepreneurs since he contends that the Unk Unks are the mostly likely obstacle to a startup long term success.

But it is also a concept I can use in my line of work. How does as artist go about making a list of what you can’t see and don’t yet understand? Market research conducted in the imaginal zone?

I’d rather think of the Unk Unks as a playful invitation to dance, to float freely in the nonlinear realms, to prognosticate with abandon, to envision at will, to give way to reverie, lollygagging and daydreaming.

Besides, I can’t employ a word that playful to describe portentious doom or demise. It’s the squeeze sound of a child’s stuffed animal, not a sad fate or a villain lurking just around the next corner.

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* This cheery and essentially upbeat term should not be confounded with the now infamous passage from that former Dark Lord Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, spoken with a straight face at a press conference during the early days of the Iraq nightmare: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

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Is there some trace of the land’s past still resident? Although songlines are not part of our Western cultural history, the concept of stories preserved in a particular landscape has a powerful appeal. Here in New England we often joke about the tenacity of our Puritan ancestors whose energy still seems to linger in spite of our embrace of 21st century cosmopolitanism. We try to smooth out our tablecloth, but the bubbles of Cotton Mather and the Salem witch trials don’t disappear, they just move down a plank or two.

I have slept on the ground from Bolivia to Bhutan, and every landscape offers up its own dream images and energies. But in all the years I lived in Manhattan, I never did spend a night sleeping and dreaming on its bare bosom. If I ever did, the images might reflect the Manhattan being assembled by the Wildlife Conservation Society as part of their Mannahatta Project (the Lenape tribe’s name for the island.) The WCS is meticulously analyzing every historical document in order to reconstruct the primordial landscape that existed before Henry Hudson and his crew first saw the island in 1609.

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Looking south from Soho. Fresh water marshes, Collect Pond and forests of poplars and pines. (Rendering by Markley Boyer for the Wildlife Conservation Society.)

At the core of the Mannahatta Project is Eric Sanderson, a landscape ecologist. He heads up a WCS project called the Human Footprint which traces the human race’s impact on the earth. “It’s hard to think of any place in the world with as heavy a footprint, in so short a time, as New York,” he said. “It’s probably the fastest, biggest land coverage swing in history.” In addition to future websites and a book, “Sanderson hopes to create a 3D computer map which would allow you to fly above the island, land wherever you want, and look around. Eventually, Sanderson would like to put up plaques around town calling attention to vanished landmarks.” (The New Yorker)

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Looking to the northwest from Foley Square. Marshes existed where Canal Street is today.

My future techno fantasy: The i-Travel, a hand held for time travel. Key in a year, and the landscape is transmogrified for you, on the spot. Who knows, the Mannahatta Project may be an early prototype.

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One yellow door, on one house. It was a reasonable wake up accent for an otherwise understated facade.

But when yellow showed up just a few houses down, the understated gave way to garish.

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Gerald Horne, architect and friend, has long advocated for “architecture insurance”–a way to protect us from really bad decisions made by our neighbors and/or well funded, aesthetically challenged organizations (like my neighborhood’s most notorious offender, Boston University.) Maybe we need a vigilante citizens’ version of W magazine’s notorious FP, the Fashion Police, who scoured the streets of New York for evidence of fashion gone awry (FV, or “fashion victims”) and then published their findings each week for all to gape and gasp.

It’s easier to tolerate muffin topped jeans than a house color screaming so loud nobody can escape it.

Akhil Sharma, from an interview with Frank Gehry:
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One story that Mr. Gehry told me and which made him chuckle was that of a friend who is a chiropractor and who asked him to help her lay out her office. “I love doing that kind of stuff,” Mr. Gehry said. The friend came over and brought her floor plans and Mr. Gehry spent several hours noodling over them. “I’ve always had the fantasy of having a little kiosk in the mall where I could do that. Where people would line up and you would charge them 25 bucks and you would look at their plans. I love doing that kind of stuff. They think you are a genius when you move one little wall and get an efficiency and nobody had thought of that before. Small pleasures.”

If only.