Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Why Vegas?

Recently the Atlantic posted an article on its website called Why Are Developers Still Building Sprawl? which caused quite a furor on my Twitter feed among planners and architects because it presented a rather sobering reality: that most Americans still buy homes in the suburbs (which honestly should be no surprise to anyone who lives outside of NYC and San Francisco). But notice that I used the word "buy" rather than "prefer", because I think the reality is far more complex than the statistics would suggest. This post is a response to that article. 

One of the reasons I saw many other commentators point out is that ever since the recession the average homebuyer is considerably older than previously, so the statistics are obviously skewed towards Gen X and boomers, who are still trapped in a suburban mindset. And again, who can blame them when in most cities suburbs are all they know. Suburban homes are all that is available in most cities, so even those who would prefer a more urban lifestyle are given little choice. In my own once hometown of Columbus, IN, for example, even my millennial peers are buying suburban-style homes because that's about all there is. Columbus does have a historic downtown which has a couple decent streets, but there's very little homes in the area, and what there is is a low-income area. 

The article largely focused on Las Vegas, so it's the city this post will likewise focus on. For years Vegas has been seen as a stronghold of suburbanism while also being one of the nation's fastest growing cities, especially before the recession. It was also one of the most hard-hit areas during the recession, with many new developments stalling or going bankrupt. It's now starting to recover, but as the article says it's mainly business as usual, both for developers and homebuyers. 

First and foremost, I think it's incredibly naive to expect any sort of urban revolution to start in a city such as Vegas. From its very inception built for cars, it would take a generation or more to even begin to make a dent. It would have been far more interesting and perceptive to focus on Atlanta, for example, which while also now a bastion of suburbanism, at least has a historic pre-car backbone on which to lean on. From the core of its downtown on through the strip and outwards, Vegas is suburbia to its core and it'll seemingly take more than a recession to change that.

But let's analyze what's going on and why suburbia remains so popular. I want to understand the aims and psych of many of these developers and buyers. One of the new developments the article featured is Inspirada, on the very southern edge of Vegas. It's a curious hybrid of suburbia and vaguely New Urbanist aspirations. This hybrid nature results in a neighborhood which offers the benefits of neither (a common characteristic of other Traditional Neighborhood Developments as I'll later discuss). Before I continue, take a look at Inspirada on Google Maps

Sure the neighborhood has homes built closely together and close to the street, following the tenets of New Urbanism, but the very suburban width of the streets destroys the intimacy this tenet aims for, and the lack of anywhere to walk to negates the need to build densely. If you want people to walk, there have to be things to walk to beyond just a pool (note the copious parking by the pool). The developers quickly gave up on selling the smaller homes designed for walkability, ignoring the fact that buyers probably weren't interested because there was nothing to walk to. This begs the question: are the developers not very adept or are they slyly invoking New Urbanism to cover-up their aim to fit more lots per acre? I think it's safe to assume the latter. 

So in the end you have neither the walkability of New Urbanism nor the space of suburbia. If this is what developers are peddling as the next big thing, it should come as no surprise if most homebuyers simply opt for what they already know: a big suburban home on a big suburban lot. If you have to drive everywhere regardless, you might as well have it all, right?

Inspirada: no gardens and too much asphalt
Lakelands, Maryland, from above a sober sea of grey with little greenery
Why the Inspirada homes appeal is quite a mystery to me, truth be told. That big suburban home I can actually understand. You can't blame someone for wanting to have a big yard for the dog and kids to run around, after all. But these homes, they don't even have a suggestion of a yard, at best just a sorry little corner for the BBQ, with the rest of the rear taken up by the garage and a rear alleyway. It's not that different from living in an apartment. This may be deep in the 'burbs, but many inner city London townhouses have a larger back garden, with true walkability to boot. I understand the rear alleyway in an urban environment, where no one has a private garden anyway, or in the suburbs when it doesn't eat up the garden, but here the compromise doesn't work. The wide road in combination with the alleyway contributes to a sea of asphalt and means that homes are surrounded by a street on both sides, so you don't even get that all-important privacy. 

It's really important to balance design elements and not forget that the means don't always justify the ends. Even DPZ didn't get some of these things right in their Flatlands development in Maryland, so Inspirada is far from alone. The Daybreak community in Utah, touted as the largest TND development in the nation, also misses the mark, with wide roads, wasted land, and too much surface parking. As good as many TND communities are, a lot of them fall far off mark. In fact, they defer little from classic suburbs such as Irvine, CA.  

Most of the successful New Urbanist developments are pretty small in scale, rarely over a couple hundred acres, but for the movement to truly make an impact, large scale developments like Inspirada and Daybreak will have to start getting things right. That means true walkability and a full assortment of walkable services: shopping, schools, healthcare, and entertainment. I can't help but feel that the classic Main Street and classic grid is still the best model to replicate, and it puzzles me why it's not relied upon more often. It allows for organic growth and efficient use of land, whereas most of these master-planned communities grow in a hodgepodge manner, taking years to offer a semblance of their advertised amenities. Perhaps this isn't something one development can offer. One strategy I propose (which would require planning and foresight beforehand on the part of developers and planners) would be for several developments to jointly develop the Main Street where they all meet, thus relieving the pressure and sharing the load. City officials should take a more active role in this. 

I think it's important for homebuyers to think long and hard about the sort of homes they buy and in what kind of community, and to essentially vote with their wallets. There needs to be a deeper consideration beyond just whether there's a marble countertop. There are few better ways to force developers to get out of their comfort zone and make good, walkable communities that are truly walkable, not just in the marketing material. For the sake of our cities, and our planet, these decisions need to get better sooner rather than later. People want something to aspire towards, and communities like Inspirada don't make the cut. Here's hoping others in the future do. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

I Choose To Walk

A few weeks back the Huffington Post invited me to write an article for their new section on cities called Urban Progress. It's finally up! I'm posting a copy over here as well, though. 

Read it on Huffington Post here.

I've always found that walking is the best way to truly understand a city.
Unencumbered by the need to keep moving as in a car, one is free to pause when they please and really take in all the city's detail. You see a lot more at 5mph than you do at 50. For that reason I choose to walk. Having this choice is a hallmark of well-designed cities, even for little things like choosing a busy or quiet route between destinations. Living in London for three years, I always loved having the option to get off a busy main road and instead walk through the city's beautiful garden squares and marvel at the Victorian architecture. It was almost surreal how quickly the noise evaporated, with just a faint hint of the buses' diesel engines and the hordes of tourists on their pilgrimages from one museum to the next. It would be difficult to otherwise appreciate the city's neighborhoods if not for the relative tranquility of many of its streets through the eyes of a pedestrian, an experience which would be completely impossible in a car. Walking allowed me to truly get to know the city and its unique neighborhoods.
Diversity of neighborhoods was always among my favorite aspects of London, from the full-on urbanism of areas like the City to the village atmosphere of Hampstead. Some areas have wide almost grid-like streets, some are chock full of gardens or right next to one of the city's many parks, while others have narrow winding roads that really take you back to a different era. In all instances the illusion is strongest when neighborhoods retain their historic character, because let's face it, especially for someone from abroad, we want to experience ye olde England, we want to be surrounded by history and feel like we've stepped back in time. It's the historical bits that make the UK so immediately different from the rest of Europe, and for the most part the British are better at preserving their past than any other nation. Thank goodness for that, because the postwar stuff often leaves a lot to be desired.
London was lucky not to be excessively destroyed in the war and managed to escape the worst of postwar urban "renewal" projects. There are definitely cities in the US which are on a great path to recovery, but the same can't be said for many others, which threw themselves into such projects with wild abandon and within a matter of a few years had decimated their cores, razed historic neighborhoods, built elevated highways, and shifted jobs and shopping out of downtowns, all because of a misguided belief that moving around by automobile was the only acceptable form of transport, millions of years of evolution be damned. It's really heartbreaking to see old photos of our cities, because they were almost universally magnificent. If there's anything that cities like London, NYC, and San Francisco teach us, it's that the best cities are ones which are still best explored on foot, walking upright like humans have always done, and that this doesn't preclude a peaceful coexistence with cars. A city which is good for pedestrians is a good city for humans, it's really as simple as that.
I've never understood the notion that excessively pro-car zoning and planning policies are somehow innately American, and that being anti-car or rather not pandering to cars is anti-American. Surely the Founding Fathers and the original American cities they built like Boston and Philadelphia were no less American for their lack of cars? If anything, those city's historic neighborhoods are among the most beautiful in the nation precisely because they've resisted changing them for the sake of cars. The car after all isn't an American invention and neither are highways, so I think it's about time we dropped this America = cars belief and just accept them as one of many forms of transport and get on with fixing our once great cities. Whether that means undoing the destruction of the past or finding new forms needs to be decided on a city by city basis and hopefully each city knows best how to forge its path going forward, but I strongly believe what was once done by man can be done again. It's paramount that our cities be explorable on foot so that Americans once again truly know and live in their cities, and that means designing streets that look good not just at 50 but at 5mph too.
There's no reason American cities can't once again be the envy of the world not just economically but for their beauty as well. The American people are some of the most creative and driven in the world and there's no reason solutions can't be found if we lay aside our differences and understand that we all want essentially the same thing: strong, safe, beautiful cities which we're proud to call home and pass on to the next generation better than we ourselves found them. That, if anything, is the true American way, the tireless pursuit of betterment for all.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

My very own architecture school

If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. It seems increasingly clear that the architecture profession isn't going to change of its own accord, certainly not at any great speed. This is especially true of the educational establishment, almost exclusively Modernist and reliant on a studio system which is not reflective of the real world. So maybe the only solution is to abandon trying altogether to fix things from the inside and shape our own alternative.

If I had the resources to do so, I think an effective method would be to found my own private school of architecture, offering a complete alternative to existing programs. Obviously not like the AA in London, which exclusively teaches the most ridiculous modernism (and quite frankly not to a high standard in recent years). I'd call it something like the Holistic School of the Built Environment, because it's long overdue to meld the worlds of architecture, urban planning, landscape architecture, and maybe a bit of carpentry too. I see it as essential to integrate these various disciplines and teach them as a whole. I've never liked over-specialization. You can't have a beautiful city without great streets, and you can't have a beautiful city without beautiful buildings. Students need to breathe both to create fully engaging built environments. It all goes hand-in-hand. I'd like to say this is my own radical idea, but it’s not really. If anything it harks back to the way architecture used to be taught, back before the age of iconic buildings and starchitects. You know, when cities and towns were built to be livable and beautiful.

Despite having graduated from an architecture program, I don’t feel significantly more capable of constructing my own building than before I started. Most contemporary architecture programs, in my experience, are very insular, with little regard for preparing students for the real world. Hundreds of years back, I’m sure every young adult was capable of putting up their own cabin, but after completing a specialized architecture degree, it’s pretty inexcusable that I can’t say the same for myself and my fellow students. The studio model, where young students are given imaginary briefs and essentially allowed to exercise their every whim and fancy, it doesn't teach anything. Maybe a little graphic design skill, maybe how best to hoodwink a roomful of critics. It definitely doesn't result in well thought-out buildings which pay due attention to context and user needs, and it results in an atmosphere of one-upmanship. I'd encourage camaraderie between students, faculty, and critics. I wouldn't want my students to experience the ill will and rudeness so common in most architecture schools. The goal would be fostering an environment of enlightenment and understanding, not an autocratic regime.  

At my school, I’m not sure I’d let students get anywhere near creating their own briefs until long after I’m convinced they've mastered the basics. Carpentry and masonry would certainly be in the program. We’d start with precedent studies and scale models and then go out and build cabins by hand, starting with small one-room structures and make our way up from there. This way students would have a proper understanding of how buildings are put together before they put pen to paper. While we’re on the subject of scale, I should mention that there’d be a strict six-story limit to designs. Minus the odd church steeple, no building needs to go higher in 99.9% of the world’s cities.

Students would be taught how to effectively navigate the quagmire of politics and planning, and to be socially and culturally engaged. An appreciation of old buildings would be paramount, as would the preservation of them. The program would also encourage an understanding of the business side of building. Perhaps there’d be courses on being a developer/architect, as this is an effective way to bypass the often contradictory aims of developers, for whom quality architecture may not be a priority. Some developers who do care, however, like I'on Group's Vince Graham and Seaside's Robert S. Davis, would be good mentors for this.

I'd be Chairman of my school, of course, but I'd tap someone like Peter Buchanan to help me run the place and to devise a program, which would be regularly evaluated. Books like Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities would be required reading and I'd hire who I consider to be the most thoughtful people in the professions to teach. Some obvious choices are Andrés Duany, Jan Gehl, Jeff Speck, and Ross Chapin to cover town planning, urban design, and transportation. Richard Florida would be an excellent choice for urban theory and economics. It would also be great to have an architecturally minded creative artist like Patrick Dougherty involved in some capacity. Some of the other choices are tricky, however. Many of the greats who I’d love to be involved, like Christopher Alexander, are all but retired. Obviously I’d need to be put in a lot more effort to find the most appropriate individuals.

The actual architecture department choice would be the most difficult, because I’m not especially fond of most living architects. Therefore this is a department where my own involvement would have to be greatest, but I’d collaborate with architects I respect like Mickey Muennig, James Hubbell and Sim Van der Ryn. Maybe someone from Olson Kundig Architects, Arkin Tilt Architects, or Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, who sometimes get close on certain projects. But boy do I wish someone in the vain of turn of the century architects like Charles and Henry Greene, Bernard Maybeck, Antoni Gaudí, and Frank Lloyd Wright were still around, not to mention those who lived hundreds of years ago like Christopher Wren, or Victorian masters like George Gilbert Scott, Charles Berry, or Samuel and Joseph Newsom. But one shouldn’t dwell too long on the past.

While my school would not be traditional, I certainly think it would be beneficial to have a few traditional architects on board, for their greater understanding of the nuances of what made traditional buildings so attractive. Contenders include Bobby McAlpine, Robert A.M. Stern, and Robert Lamb Hart. All the Roberts are a coincidence, I swear! Another tough category to fill would be history, as legends such as Vincent Scully are retired, and I’m not too familiar with contemporary architectural historians. My choices would be individuals with an innate understanding of pre-WWII architecture. It would probably be useful to have Paul Goldberger or some other architecture critic come in to help the students think critically. Certainly someone with a strong voice and not shy of controversy. James Howard Kunstler might be ideal. He’s definitely someone with a unique voice and strong conviction.

Logistically, I think the best location would be somewhere on the West Coast of the United States. Europe is far too entrenched in modernism, too conservative and bureaucratic, and maybe something similar could be said about the East Coast. The West Coast is different, however. More open and with a strong tradition of running against the pack, California in particular. Sure it’s strongly connected with modernism, but it’s also the heart of progressive thinking. You may be aware of the handmade house movement, which I've recently had the pleasure to read about in the book Handmade Houses by Richard Olsen. This movement had its base in the Bay Area and Big Sur, places which to this day have a more open and daring attitude than perhaps anywhere else in the Western world. I can’t think of a better location for my school. And to be a little objective, I admit it’s also a place which could do with a little priority adjustment, by which I’m referring to California’s infatuation with cars. But the recent push for high-speed rail, and mixed-use development creeping in to Los Angeles, shows that just maybe the car is losing its grip. It could be an excellent opportunity to be involved in that push. Confronting this head-on, and involving students, is an exciting prospect.

More important even than the people involved, however, will be the mission. Beauty, beauty, and beauty. Just because it annoys me how taboo the word is, I'll say it again: beauty. It’ll be essential to instill students with a sense of beauty, and it’d be at the core of the curriculum. The purpose being to fill the world with architects who can design great everyday buildings, the glue that holds cities and streets together. Their expertise would not necessarily be eye-catching monuments or the iconoclastic or bombastic stuff that grabs headlines, but the environments we interact with on a daily basis. The little nooks and moments that make people fall in love with a city. Students with a “I want to do something crazy just for the sake of craziness” mindset would be strictly discouraged. Good architecture isn't about innovation of form. Unless as a species we undergo some tremendous biological evolution in the near future, what’s the point of innovating in our built environment? On the contrary, if anything we've innovated way too much in the past several decades and should rewind the clock. Adapting floor plans to better suit modern lifestyles, yes, but not this constant quest for the next iconic building.

Maybe there needs to be some innovation in the architectural business model, to make architects relevant again, but innovation doesn't yield beauty. The ultimate beauty, nature, hardly innovates at all. Evolution is so slow it’s barely perceptible. One of my favorite architecture styles, Victorian, did evolve, but over the course of decades, and certainly not on a project-by-project timeframe. The general public already has a hard time identifying with architects, who they hold responsible for all the junk we've built over the past several decades. My students would be taught to make beautiful buildings that the public can love again. Now where did I stash those millions I’ll need to make my school a reality...

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The new normal not so normal

I was intrigued to see a book called Nature Wars by Jim Sterba on the latest top book list, and read a review of it on the Wall Street Journal website. It got me thinking...

Perhaps it’s cliche to ask what an alien would think if they visited our planet, but I don’t think we need to cross over into fiction. Someone from a few hundred years back would be equally shocked at some of the things they’d discover, and the prognosis might not be so good. Once they got over the technological awe, I think they’d be severely disappointed, because there are a lot of bizarre things about us, and a lot that’s perverse. The way I see it, perversity has become a depressingly regular feature of modern life, so much so that we can't even recognize it or readily accept it. We lead lives which we've come to accept as normal but they're anything but. Just look at our relationship with nature, which has gotten about as far from symbiosis as imaginable. Some people happily admit they have an aversion to or avoid the "outdoors." That's alarming. When humans have thousands of car collisions with deer every day, do we ever consider that maybe there's something fundamentally wrong with ubiquitous car use, that driving along in these huge metal boxes at high speeds is an unnatural activity for our species, contrary to our biology? Do we feel remorse for killing these beautiful, innocent living creatures? Do we ever reconsider our stance on eliminating deers' natural predators? No, we automatically choose the lazy route: create even more destruction and kill the deer. That or we build giant ugly barriers, further isolating ourselves from nature. Solutions like these only try to solve the problem at the effect, but do nothing to address the cause. In this case the cause is the fundamental perversity of relying on cars so regularly on a daily basis.

Another example: does the fact that birds pose a threat to airplanes ever suggest to anyone that perhaps mechanical flying is an inherently freakish thing to do? No, we just kill the birds. Killing living creatures seems to be our go-to action anytime our comfort and convenience is threatened. Every life is invaluable, yet we systematically engage in activities which put our own and our fellow creatures’ lives in danger. Is there anything in our biological evolution to suggest that flying is a normal thing to do for humans? No. We've also allowed ourselves to be boxed in to sedentary lifestyles, sitting on chairs in an office all day, and then go to gym and workout intensively for an hour. We've come to accept this as normal, but it’s not. Our lives should be designed around regular exercise, but instead it’s been relegated to an optional extra. I don’t think I need to state obvious perversity like war. The fact that it’s so accepted in this day and age is crazy.

Main Street, Springfield, MA 1908
That humans believe themselves so superior and almost godlike in their domination of Earth is perhaps inevitable but neither helpful or healthy for the future of our relationship with the nature that we share our planet with. Deep down I don't think anyone can feel comfortable with these feelings of superiority, but many let themselves get blindsided. It's utterly anti-nature, and thus anti-human. Modernism may have tried hard to separate us from nature, but we belong to it just as much as any other creature. We’re not from outer space. This planet is, always has been, and always will be our natural habitat. There’s no getting around this fundamental truth. Let us never forget that we too are creatures of the Earth, and as the dominate (and supposedly intelligent and compassionate) species, only we can feel responsible for all others. We need to do everything possible, as quickly as possible, to reconnect with nature and stop feeling like strangers on our own planet.

We exhibit similarly contradictory actions in our designs of cities. We've let ourselves design our lives around giant moving machines, cars. Many of us have almost completely abandoned the most basic human actions like walking. In many American cities one doesn't even have a choice anymore: it’s drive or give up the option to shop, socialize, and go to school. Generally in these cities one cannot lead a “normal” life without a car. You could argue they could move to one of the handful of pockets where this isn't the case, but that’s not always so easy. Not everyone belongs to the mobile creative class, can find a job wherever they like, or has the financial resources to move. Many people don’t want to pull their kids out of a school, or leave behind their friends and family. Walkable cities are the only effective way to encourage people out of their secluded homes and foster a sense of community again. 

But if we want walkable cities to be available to all, there’s no choice except to localize walkability, to offer the option in every town in the country. As I say so often, it’s really no different than returning to the development patterns that existed before the car, back when we still designed primarily for pedestrians. That means downtowns, main streets, and inner-city shopping and workplaces. Crazy? No, the only sane thing to do. Our lives should be designed around what’s best for us as humans, not what’s best for corporate interests or because “that’s just the way it is.” Nothing that is, came about by accident. Everything is a reflection of manmade choices. And only manmade choices can forge a new path towards a newer, healthier new normal.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

reCities' 2 year anniversary

I can't believe it's already been two years since I started reCities. In honor of this milestone, I'd like to showcase a few posts, a "best of" if you will.  

Thanks to the Sustainable Cities Collective and retweets, my two most recent posts have been my fastest viewed ever. If you haven't read them yet, here are the links.
Starchitects don't know best
A worthy goal for humanity? Beauty

My longest posts were originally assignments at university. They're a few years old, but are still fairly accurate representations of my ideas. If you have time, I recommend taking a look. 

Readjusting the American City
Worlds Collide: A critique of the contemporary
You can see more of my personal writing here

There are of course the case studies, which now number five.
San Francisco
Washington, D.C.
The historical photos posts are always very popular, too. In fact, Historic Boston is my most viewed post ever. 

Also, remember you can follow me on Twitter: @RobertKwolek
I hope you enjoy the blog. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A worthy goal for humanity? Beauty

There has to be more to the human story than just perpetual population growth and incremental technological progress. It’s been my experience that we as a people never ask ourselves what the goal for humanity is. Certainly we have personal goals, or even national goals, but our entire species? I've met very few people who even consider such a concept, but I think it’s critical if we’re to avoid future hardship, to avoid simply drifting from birth to death. Our focus needs to go beyond self-preservation like the environmental movement. This merely prevents a future catastrophe, but doesn't answer any questions about the path of humanity. It’s not enough to focus on single issues. If we did consider our path and goals, how would we grade our progress? Especially in recent years, politics seems to be more concerned with partisanship, pseudo-issues, and preventing collapse than with making any “progress”, so we won’t find these answers in DC, Brussels, or the UN. Would most of us agree that the goal is for everyone to be happy and fulfilled, and if so, would we agree that on average we’re more happy and fulfilled now than ever? All these advances in technology and economic globalism, do we consider how they’re relevant in achieving this, if they've made us more or less happy? Is it all to eliminate global poverty and disease? Some probably think so, though that certainly isn't the goal of those in power and those with money, otherwise that would have ceased being an issue decades ago. And even still, those aren't really end points, because even if we did eliminate poverty and disease, what then? There has to be a penultimate end goal far more encompassing. A goal that transcends all others and shines a clear path for thousands of years.

Image Source
A worthy goal, in my opinion? Beauty. Absolute beauty in all corners of the earth. Not the “beauty is a matter of taste” kind of beauty, or the “modern vs traditional” kind of beauty. I mean a beauty of such unequivocal peace and harmony that you feel it more than see it. The kind you find sitting on the beach at sunset. The kind you feel when shafts of light filter through the trees on a hike through the woods. It’s the kind which immediately puts to rest worldly concerns and lets you live in the moment, at peace and unconcerned with chores, careers, or the opinions of others. But you only find it when you know with absolute certainty that everything is as it should be, balanced and unaltered by dishonorable motives. On rare occasions you might even find it in a manmade environment, such as glimpses in a historical village, the gardens of an English palace perhaps, or maybe walking some of the streets featured here on reCities. You’ll never find it in a place which actively destroys nature, however, because whether consciously or not you’ll know that it’s not how it should be. I do believe every person has it within themselves to feel and identify beauty, but unfortunately many of us suppress it, usually unintentionally. Sometimes we’ll show support for some plain or ugly modernist building so as to appear progressive (peer pressure: the horror of being labelled conservative). Education also plays a part. I lost count of the number of times I saw modernist ideology being pounded in at architecture school. It’s a strong-willed young man or woman who comes out at the other end not a diehard modernist. A faceless building constructed of industrial materials with no human character can never be beautiful, as a Classical or Victorian building is. A building which recalls a World War II concrete bunker can never be beautiful. Which is not to say a modern building cannot be beautiful, but the examples can be counted on one hand. Among interiors there are a few more examples, but exteriors are on the whole tragic. It’s generally a universal trait of modernism to focus on the built form at the expense of the streetscape and context, to the detriment of city dwellers. 

A focus on beauty in all aspects of society would see large industrial farms disappear, to be replaced by far more beautiful small farms, thus guaranteeing local employment, fresh local produce, and a connection with the land and an understanding of where our food comes from. This in turn would stop land erosion and reduce or eliminate pesticide use. Global health would increase dramatically. Highways and other large scale infrastructure projects would go the way of dinosaurs, because they too are not beautiful. This in turn would encourage far more space-efficient public transport, and quite honestly I think trains have a charm and romance which cars have never been able to match. Suburban sprawl would disappear, because the relentless engulfing of nature would no longer be tolerated. Likewise we wouldn't tolerate wars or hunting. Ultimate beauty is the unrestrained balance of nature, so we would encourage the recovery of species such as wolves and bears which control the deer population. This in turn would dictate compact, walkable towns and cities, and a more socially connected society because we wouldn't feel as comfortable out in the boonies. But that is as it should be, because it is not beautiful to believe that humans have the right to dominate nature as they see fit. Beauty is not uncaring, selfish, or greedy. Our streets and sidewalks would once again be a joy to walk along, safe and unhindered from the roar and speed of automobiles, and paved in bricks or cobbles, not asphalt. Even mundane things like ugly clothes would not exist, further enhancing the experience of being outdoors among fellow walkers. Seeking beauty has a knock-on effect which filters through and has a profound influence on all aspects of humanity.

If we could focus our efforts on achieving beauty, we could stop the constant race for technological and economic gains because they would be meaningless. They're completely independent from and irrelevant to the goal of beauty and happiness and likely actually hinder them. As gatekeepers to our built environment, architects play a crucial role in this, a group whose goal should always have been beauty. That for many architects it isn't is lamentable and for me a point of great sorrow. Many modernist architects frown upon traditionalists and New Urbanists, and while I sometimes agree their work can for various reasons be disappointing, on the whole they should be commended for upholding beauty as one of their core tenets and aims. How many modernist architects can honestly say they strive for beauty? The word beauty is all but taboo in modernist circles. It’s crazy. Visit a traditional architect’s website, and you’ll often see the word beauty, or descriptions of designing from the soul or seeking a sense of spirituality. Which modernist architect can make such a claim? You cannot achieve beauty by suppressing your human nature to seek it out.

If we want a better world, we as architects, urbanists, planners, and citizens must start with ourselves. We have to be bold and confident, and trust our inner nature. If we don’t aim for beauty, we betray the public which has placed its trust in us as professionals, and worst of all we betray our humanity and continue to desecrate this planet we call our home. We have chosen a noble profession with great responsibilities. Let’s live up to it and build a world so beautiful that we cannot possibly feel any shame or guilt. As a species we've seen many millennia, so we should always live as if we were just a blip in the long reign of humanity, and construct beautiful buildings and cities which we would be proud to still serve our ancestors many hundreds of years hence.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Starchitects don't know best

It isn’t uncommon among the architectural and general media to solicit opinions from starchitects regarding their opinions about the globalization of architecture, the homogenization of design across borders, or what they have to say to critics of these practices. The mistake, of course, is that while starchitects may still do design work, they long ago ceased being solely architects. Today, the vast majority of their working lives are spent as businessmen, taking care of the ins and outs of being business owners, appeasing business partners, and their own professional/financial goals. Anyone who has run a business knows what challenges these can be, but make no mistake, they are counterintuitive to the singular title “architect”, which is the practice of building spaces for people and enhancing the built environment. I don’t know if global architects like Gehry, Koolhaas, Foster, Rogers et al. ever consider on a personal level whether or not they should be designing buildings in not only their home countries but also in the Middle East, China, and US, because the fact remains that it is their professional prerogative to create successful businesses and expand their operations. Which of course means designing as many buildings per year, in as many countries as possible, context be damned.

As a species we should not be proud of this. Source
So why do we care what starchitects have to say about globalization and the homogeneity of architecture? You wouldn't expect Bill Gates to say anything contrary to the monetary success of Microsoft, so why would Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, or Bjarke Ingels ever speak ill of borderless architecture? Of course they never do, because that could derail their business. Instead they’re steadfast and vocal proponents of their own brand of ideology, which for all we know could be an entirely fabricated marketing facade. Koolhaas in particular masquerades as an intellectual bar none, but I would argue his books, lectures, and philosophies are nothing more than the most sophisticated marketing campaign in architecture. And it's very effective, despite the unparalleled lack of humanity in his work. Like his public persona, his built work is cold, distant, and dismissive. One might venture that the job description of a starchitect is to reflect and equal the ego and megalomania of their clients, to disastrous effects.

Homogeneity might be acceptable in the fast-changing consumer electronics industry, or arguably even in music, but in architecture, the built environment which surrounds us every waking minute of our lives, and which is such an important aspect of our identifiable culture, well, it's simply not acceptable. Not unless we want to entirely lose our culture, identity, and traditions, or if we want the entire world to look exactly the same. I certainly don't. The most disappointing has to be when starchitects take on urban design duties. The results are unsurprisingly just as inhuman, if not more so, than their buildings. If you’re still saying to yourself fine, good for them, they have every right to promote their business just as any other corporation... very well, but at the least let’s stop seeing them as some kind of oracles of wisdom, better qualified to speak on architecture than anyone else. Large developers may build the majority of junk architecture, but at least they don’t pretend to be something they're not. 

I'm worried how apathetic many people have become about this. I don't just mean architects, who are among the greatest perpetrators of this global tragedy, but the general population has likewise been led to believe that place specific architecture is pastiche, old-fashioned, or not part of the zeitgeist. There's that German word again, the bane of beauty. It means the spirit of the age, but why glass, steel, and concrete represent the spirit of our age is a mystery to me. People may not be religious nowadays, but they sure do follow some of these guidelines as fervently as any religion. If anything, to me those industrially produced materials are the antithesis of the zeitgeist I live in, in which climate change is a serious concern and polluting industries should be shunned, not embraced. And for the sake of my mental well being, I want to live in an environment which promotes joy, beauty, and respect of nature. To continue to manufacture industrial materials in large quantities, conscious of the environmental consequences, and to promote them as part of the zeitgeist, that has to be some kind of perversion.

So I propose we stop promoting the BIG’s of the world (referring to both Bjarke Ingels Group and Koolhaas’ “Bigness” theories), and return architectural discourse to something of a grassroots level. We need to stop asking architect/businessmen what they foresee for the built environment, and instead start empathizing with our fellow citizens, and ask them how they would like to see their towns and cities develop. From studies we already know it veers more toward traditional walkable neighborhoods, not a megalopolis. And why not, when traditional city designs are the result of thousands of years of evolution and adapted to human needs. We want beautiful, walkable, place-specific neighborhoods, but we won't get that if we continue to hire a select group of architects to design all over the world. When mayors, planning officials, and developers turn to starchitects to develop buildings and master plans for their cities, it’s nothing more than totalitarianism which ignores the dreams of the people. Left to many architects, we’d still be in the throes of urban renewal and building towers in the park à la Le Corbusier. 

The dialogue needs to stop focusing on individual buildings and focus on the streetscape, the simple layout of streets and sidewalks, storefronts, public parks, and public transit. Only then should individual buildings come into the equation and be judged by how well they integrate and enhance the whole. A massively overscaled disjointed building like the CCTV tower? No thank you. A museum or big box store surrounded by acres of parking? I'll pass. And for the sake of all mankind, a moratorium on razing any building built pre-WWII. We need to preserve examples built at a time when human scale still mattered, when beauty mattered, and before cars dictated our cities. As for those starchitects? Well, I think your neighbor can probably identify beauty more effectively than they can.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Case Study 5.5: Conclusion

Today I conclude my look at Washington, D.C. I think we've seen the very best of the city in my posts, a city which is full of history, beauty, and fantastic residential architecture. It's just a shame the commercial and business districts don't quite match up, because these areas, popular with tourists, are what many people see. I'm sure DC would be at the top of many architecture lists if the residential areas were more well known. As the wealthiest metro area in the nation, per capita, it should come as no surprise that the city supports such a large number of exceptional neighborhoods. 

In this concluding post I'm featuring a few neighborhoods which have a limited number of nice streetscapes, but still worth showing. They may be perfectly nice, but are perhaps not historical enough, not large enough, or don't have enough nice streets to warrant an entire case study. 

This is Kalorama, which is just west of Dupont Circle. The eastern border is essentially an extension of Dupont Circle and indistinguishable, but go inwards a block and it starts to look very suburban. Sometimes it's split into Kalorama Triangle and Sheridan-Kalorama, according to Wikipedia, but Google Maps and some real estate sites also call parts Kalorama Heights. All a bit confusing, so I'm not distinguishing between them in my images. There are still several embassies but mostly it's large homes, some historical townhomes, and some McMansions. In general a pretty conservative neighborhood, but also the city's most affluent, due to the concentration of large single-family homes. 
Next is Adams Morgan, northeast of Kalorama, and significantly less upscale. It's an area popular with young professionals, dominated mostly by apartment buildings and townhomes subdivided into apartments. It's widely considered as the city's best nightlife destination, hence the popularity among the aforementioned young professionals. 
Lanier Heights, a small pocket of a neighborhood north of Adams Morgan, is just a few streets.
Mount Pleasant, north of Lanier Heights, is a large neighborhood with some 10,000 people. Mostly developed between 1900-1925, it was the city's first streetcar suburb. Like much of the city, it experienced white flight in the 60's and didn't being to recover until the late 80's. While never an affluent area, it has been home to Senators in the past, and there are still some large homes, especially along Park Road. Certainly compared to more centrally located neighborhoods, one can buy a significantly larger home with a larger yard for much less money, while still being just minutes away from urban amenities. 
And finally, Foggy Bottom, which is just about the most centrally located of any neighborhood in DC. There are really only a few residential streets, the others taken up by George Washington University and institutions like the World Bank, IMF, Red Cross, Watergate, and the list goes on. There are also quite a few apartment buildings along the river, many with multimillion dollar units. 
I hope you've enjoyed my DC case study. Away from downtown and the political circus, it's a wonderful city which offers a great quality of life to its residents and plenty to do. I've heard the social scene is a bit staid, but that's to be expected from a city with a rather singular business: politics. All in all, DC is a capital the country can be proud of. I'm sure more than a few foreign dignitaries are impressed upon their arrival and immersion into daily life. 

Which is not to say that there isn't a lot which could be improved, with public transit a particular priority. The Metro is admirable, but it serves just a few corridors, with much of the city serviced only by buses. The city shot itself in the foot when they dismantled the streetcar system and will now have to spend many millions to reinstate just a fraction of it. Whether there's the will or the funds to completely rebuild the original system is debatable. 

Another challenge is how the city will fare with its relationship to the its suburbs and other growing urban areas like Tysons Corner, Virginia. The city itself may have several walkable communities like the ones featured here, but let's not forget that the vast majority of workers in the city commute, sometimes vast distances, from the sprawl enveloped around the city. Any improvements within the District's limits are a drop in the ocean compared to the challenge of improving the suburbs. And it has be said, it's disappointing to see so many of DC's political elite holed up in gated communities in McLean, VA, representative of the worst possible class divide and social problems the country is facing. How can we expect the average American to give up their car and hour long commute, and live in harmony with each other, when not even our elected leaders strive to do so? Political leaders first and foremost should embrace a lifestyle inclusive of their fellow citizens, not hide behind walls. I think it violates the spirit of public service to live in a private community. But maybe that's just me.

The bottom line is that Washington, D.C. has unparalleled quality urban neighborhoods with a finely balanced character developed over hundreds of years. Recently there's been a lot of talk about raising the city's building height limits, but I'm strongly opposed to this. I think such a move would risk ruining the very qualities which make DC so special, and so unique among American cities. I had a discussion with a friend about this, and I think a lot of the complaints should actually be focused on the street level, not the sky. Many of the downtown area streets are not boring or constrained because of a lack of tall buildings, but rather from a dearth of street life culture. There's definitely a lack of cafe's, and far too many institutional buildings with blank facades, which just kills street life. Cities should never prioritize their skyline over street levels, and residents shouldn't let themselves be pulled in to this common cop out  Alarmingly, DC has also put up hundreds of barriers and other obstacles for the sake of security, but this has had the effect of further constraining street culture. To read more about this, see Kaid Benfield's post here. Recently he has also posted a very convincing argument for the building height limits, which I highly recommend reading. 

Although not in DC itself, the nearby city of Alexandria, VA is also worth taking a look at, especially the Old Town neighborhood. Here's a photo link. 

If you missed any of the individual case studies, be sure to visit the introductory post for links to each. There are also links to my previous posts on the navigation bar on the right, under BROWSE, including my prior case studies like San Francisco and Boston. 

Thanks for reading. I'm uncertain what my next case study will be. I'm considering Charleston or Savannah, depending on the quality of Street View or Streetside images I find. I've also considered Seattle or Portland, depending on the quality and quantity of urban neighborhoods. I'll look into it, but suggestions are welcome.