Saturday, December 19, 2015

London: a tribute to a great city

To a lot of people London is just like any other big city: loud, busy, overcrowded, and overpriced, while to others it's all wealth, bling, and supercars. While much of that is true, it's an assessment that has never resonated with me. To me it has always been so much more than that.

From the moment I arrived on the train from Gatwick Airport, as the train crossed the bridge before pulling into Blackfriars Station on a beautiful September afternoon, I was awestruck. I'd never seen such buildings before, and such mesmerizing soft light which is so complementary to the city's best Victorian architecture. That first glance over eight years ago was the start of a love affair which didn't diminish over the three years I studied and lived in that great city, and it lasts to this day.

Notting Hill, Kensington, Belgravia, Chelsea: these are not just names of movies or posh areas. To me they conjure images of the greatest urban residential neighborhoods in the world, neighborhoods of a quality which have never been built since and which are still full of lessons for how we should be living and building today. They're full of charm and variety, offer a selection of different building types, and are full of parks, canals, or near to the river. There’s something for everyone. No wonder they command premium prices.

Oddly enough, for the most part they're not built on the 500 year old foundations of medieval villages. Rather, like modern day large-scale subdivisions, they were largely developed on former farmland by a single landowner and put up very quickly. It was not unusual for builders to erect dozens of new houses per year with sometimes thousands of workers on site. This is heartening information, because it shows clearly that large-scale development done quickly can yield fantastic results. It's a commitment to basic tenets of design that matters most. Like I've said many times on this blog, these basics have been abandoned in the past century, but really they're incredibly easy to reintroduce because they're based on common sense.

All of them boil down to one single holy truth: build around people. When you do that, everything else falls into place. You get a mix of densities based on how far most people are willing to walk, whether that be for shopping, dining, or to public transport. You get more beautiful buildings because they have to be detailed to look good to those walking at 5 mph rather than zooming by in a car at 40. You get the occasional meandering path in between blocks, and little parks tucked away in corners. You give people an alternative to corporate jobs by fostering a need for small business and as a result have a robust local economy. The benefits are endless, because when you do things the right way, everything just clicks into place. Things are just natural without alot of effort. Living in London made this abundantly clear to me. Because the city was built for pedestrians, moving around by foot is still the most efficient way of getting around and therefore everything still works as it should.

I’d wanted to be an architect for years, and I’d visited nice places around Europe before, but it wasn’t until I went to London that I really fell in love with buildings, and understood fully that the composition of buildings along a street matters a whole lot more than the individual trophy building. And to me, the compositions in London are as good as it gets. Modern architects could learn a lot about creating beauty by following the simple lessons this city has to offer. It doesn't take as much effort as architectural education would leave us to believe, only a thorough understanding of proportions and respect for materials and context.  

I love British Georgian and Victorian architecture, that unique combination of simplicity with whimsy that only they can pull off. Historical British architecture always borrowed from the French and Italians, but by making it their own British architects built some of the most delightful and unique buildings the world had ever seen.

In London, especially the best areas of North and West London, all these concepts come together on a grander scale than anywhere else in the country. The British preference for single family homes (“a man’s home is his castle”) resulted in the ubiquitous terrace housing seen throughout the city, further aided by the unique garden squares which make London the greenest major city in Europe. Ubiquitous, yet full of variety. Some are like grand palaces, others modest two-story brick buildings with little decoration. Every landowner hired his own architects and surveyors, so the terraces of South Kensington do not look the same as those in Notting Hill or Mayfair. No two districts look exactly the same. 

No city before, nor any city since, has built as much terrace housing as London. More than any other major city, London is a city of houses, not apartments. Even areas where many of the homes have been converted into apartments still retain that character, as they still look like single family homes from the outside.

Unlike, say, New York, which has a similar atmosphere throughout due to the strong street grid, the various areas of London are often so dissimilar to each other you’d hardly guess it’s the same city, which makes visiting the various corners of the city such an enjoyable, varying experience. On any given weekend I’d take 15-20km walks across the city, often crossing several districts. Hampstead and Highgate are almost like a village in the countryside, Marylebone more urban, Chelsea a quaint hamlet, Notting Hill like living in a park, and Belgravia a bastion of elegance with all that white stucco. My favorite would constantly revolve, dependant basically on which one I’d been to most recently. I could see myself living happily in any one of them.

The great Victorian city of London may be showing some cracks in its seams with recent development. Corrupt politicians are only too happy to let developers put up cartoonish towers completely out of character and detrimental to what the city has been for hundreds of years. Speculative investors don't help by driving up home prices and leaving many sitting empty. I hope these trends will die off soon. 

But luckily, for the most part, the city is doing an admirable job of resisting the onslaught of modernity where it really counts. This is further aided by something the British do better than anyone else: restoration. Whereas in countries like Germany a building after restoration usually looks brand new, all signs of its unique history erased, the British treat restoration as an art, doing what needs to be done to extend the lifespan of a building, but leaving untouched signs of age. Thus preserving what makes it unique in the first place. London messes with itself at its own peril. Thank goodness there are many people dedicating their lives to preserving the best of this special and historical city.

Something else I really love about London is how easy it is to escape the hustle and bustle. One minute you may be on a busy shopping street like Brompton or King’s Road, but turn off into a leafy residential side street and within a few seconds you can find yourself in an entirely different world, away from the noise and traffic. The London residential street is a world of it’s own, each possessing an identity all its own. Within that very specific London archetype one finds multitudes of variations. Harmony among chaos. Boy do I miss those Victorian terraces just thinking about them.

I guess that's what really draws me to London, the fact that this is a city defined by its homes and remarkable residential areas that are distinct both in design and spatially from the city's commercial areas. These were the early suburbs, but suburbs done right. Separate, but not so much that residents lose sight of the city or lose the ability to walk. And unlike many European cities, which with my American sensibility I find somewhat claustrophobic, in London the scale is comfortable, the street widths are relaxed. One can still breathe, and you are never far from a park. For all its big city credentials, London is a city in which it is easy to wander and escape reality, no matter who you are.

Maybe London isn’t for everybody. My brother was never anywhere near as fond as I am, for example. But it is for me, if I could afford to live in one of the beautiful areas I enjoy so much. It’s the one place I’ve ever lived that I felt at home. I could walk those streets among the glories of Victorian architecture all day, every day. There's no other place like it. It’s my favorite city in the world, and probably always will be.

All photos my own. See more of my London photos here.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Time for a change

Language is a very powerful tool. Not just for communication, but equally importantly for conveying feelings and emotions. If I use the words beautiful or delightful, you understand immediately and start to visualize what they may apply to. If an architect’s work doesn't convey those words and the associated emotions, they are not doing a good job. Furthermore, in such a case they are letting down their duty to make the world a more beautiful place, which to me is by far an architect’s, designer’s, and their clients’ most important role. In such a case they are betraying the users of the building and the hundreds, thousands, or maybe even millions of people who will walk or drive by on a daily basis. It is therefore unfortunate, even a tragedy, that most architects are far removed from this view.

I get the sense, or rather I know for a fact, that a lot of architects purposefully don’t focus on beauty, something akin to teenagers rebelling just for the sake of it. But that’s bordering on insanity, sort of like a chef consciously cooking bad tasting food in an attempt to shock. Fortunately for restaurant goers, chefs like that are in the minority, but unfortunately for all humanity, there are a lot of architects like that, and many architecture schools teach in that vein.

The malaise of architecture in this age is certainly not a solo degradation but reflective of a wider degeneration of culture and society globally. We, on average, dress uglier, speak uglier, eat uglier, and of course, build uglier, than at any other time in modern history, and craftsmanship is disappearing into a bygone era.

Fortunately, a recovery is evident in some areas, mostly with food, a result of a backlash against low quality and commercialization. There’s the slow food movement, organic, farm-to-table, craft beer... but where is architecture’s recovery? When will we be able to say about the average new building that it has soul and character? The general populace hates modernism yet among the profession it clings on like an incurable disease.

Beauty and the Beast: Corb was not ahead of his
time, rather his architecture was unusually soulless.
A case of car design being many steps behind architecture? Hardly. Rather, a case of car designers resisting the unfortunate decline that befall architecture. It wouldn't be until the 1980's that cars reached a low point, boxy and boring and devoid of personality. A lot like modernism. Luckily everyone hated these years and a recovery started in the 90's. Today, the best Alfas have almost as much soul as the best of the 60's. The Alfa 8C is a stunning car, all sensuality and passion. Real personality.

Le Corbusier often claimed that his architecture was a product of the machine age, contemporary with modern automobiles and other inventions of a bold new world. A car can often be seen in commissioned photographs of his homes. The reality, however, is that his 1920's homes are wholly incompatible with 1920's cars. Those photographs look really jarring, those beautiful classic cars and their sweeping, sensuous curves up next to his blank white walls. I don't know what Corb was thinking, but he got it all wrong. Clearly he did not understand early machines, which were used not to suck out all emotion, but to make the same beautiful things as before, only faster and cheaper. In fact, cars would continue to be more in tune with traditional design up through the 1960's. It’s a real delight to see photos of a 1950's Mercedes in the grounds of a historic palace, for example. You get a real sense that here everything is in harmony, that among these surroundings this vehicle is in its natural habitat. Is it any wonder that these pre-60’s cars now fetch millions at auction?

On the other hand, modernist buildings of the same age more often than not end up being bulldozed, sold for no more than the value of the land. Except for architects, no one wants them. Unlike what Corb and other modernists were doing with buildings, classic cars were not a case of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Classic cars were evolutions, a carriage without a horse, so the designs were not revolutionary. They were not some magical devices which arrived without any historical context, and how lucky we are for that. Only an architect would think to wholly disconnect function from form, as if our millennia quest for beauty was for naught.

Architecture is so entrenched, however, that I fear it will still be many years before beauty is permitted to return by the establishment. When it does, I hope all architects will take up the challenge to make the world a more beautiful place, to design buildings equally as, or even more beautiful, than the best traditional buildings. I do not believe this has ever been accomplished. Pause for a moment and think deeply about this. Some buildings, in their own way, are in the ballpark, like Fallingwater and, from a distance, the Sydney Opera House. That’s... about it. Nowhere is this more evident than with the average home. A traditional 1890 Victorian, whether in the US or UK, was a work of art compared to what the mass home builders plop up today, and that’s before we even take build quality into account. They don’t build ‘em like they used to.

Right now, almost everything we build desecrates the natural beauty of an area, or even wipes all traces of it. Architects should not rest until every square inch of our good earth is no less beautiful than the day man set foot here. The vast majority of what we have built falls far short. Depressingly, achingly, furiously short. We should all fight for this to change and pick up the banner for beauty. Ironically Corbusier would abandon his strict modernism in his later years, even as others continued to cling on, and himself would have the last word when he said "you know, it is always life that is right and the architect who is wrong." Indeed.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The importance of private gardens

Having a backyard for the kids to play in and for the dog to run around in is one of the big reasons many people choose suburban living. A garden is a place to unwind, a little pocket of nature in an increasingly synthetic world. Countless studies have shown the benefits of nature on our psych. Unfortunately this is something many TNDs overlook, with gardens tiny or nonexistent. 

Many new developments being built in the US advertise themselves as being a TND (Traditional Neighborhood Development), a kind of catch-all acronym for a development which follows some, but not all, of the tenets of New Urbanism. I'm a supporter of New Urbanism, and I worry that the lack of gardens in some of these new developments might be detrimental to the NU movement. Too many TNDs, and some NU communities too, lack almost any kind of private outdoor space, and I don't think it should be this way. 

Now I admit to being a little biased about this as I believe having a connection with the earth is extremely important, and in my own life I have dearly missed having even a tiny sliver of a garden when I've lived in an apartment, something a balcony can never substitute for. It's why you'll never see me in support of Hong Kong-like densities. A park nearby may be somewhat viable, but only if it's very, very close, and even then it's not the same as your own piece of land. For some people, especially those like me in their 20's, living in an apartment may be ok for a while, but eventually, for many, nature calls. And that's normal.

The key is to build with the right balance, and to build sustainably. This is something that our ancestors had perfected, before the automobile arrived and threw everything off balance. That balance meant not too dense so as to alienate nature, but not so sparse so that land is wasted (i.e. most suburban sprawl). In my mind there are few things worse in development than wasting land, like those bland blank yards many people have, unused except by the riding mower. This aspect, like most others, New Urbanism understands perfectly. If only more TND developments recognized that many people want usable gardens, I think it would much more effectively compete with more conventional developments. One solution would be to build homes as 3 stories rather than two, find alternative locations for garages, better utilize the space above the garage, or have easily accessible private community gardens à la Notting Hill in London.

Of course in a big city few expect to have a garden, but in rural areas, where most New Urbanist communities are built, it seems almost odd to not have a garden, especially when these developments are competing with the rest of suburbia. For a single family home this should be almost a given, but even with rowhomes a garden shouldn't be excluded. The community-driven aspect of NU communities need not be affected by more private space.

In today's post I'll look at New Urbanist and TND (Traditional Neighborhood Development) communities and their back gardens, and compare them to historical development patterns both in the US and in the UK, which will hopefully show what's being done well and where improvements could be made. I'll avoid resort towns like Seaside and focus on those where most residents live year round.

The culprits

I'm starting with Daybreak, a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah, one of the largest TNDs around. The developer claims 1/5th of all homes in the county are sold here. About the only concessions to New Urbanism are the narrow lots with homes closer together, small front yards, and the rear alleys. Otherwise the roads are typically suburban in their width, with far too large corner radii at intersections. The rear alleys have completely eaten up whatever backyard there might've been. The small community garden on the left is little more than a patch of grass, the kind of place you're more likely to see a "Keep off the lawn" sign than kids playing or dogs running around. 
Here's a group of homes around a sparse community garden. It's too bad it was done this way as the architectural quality of the homes is generally far above the typical suburban norm. 
One of the promises of suburbia is privacy, but look at some of these homes, they're surrounded by a sidewalk on as many as four sides! That's worse than any rowhome, and unlike most rowhomes, the ground floor windows are at eye level. 
Here we have the rear alley, where the vast majority of residents will enter their homes. Considering all the land already occupied by the "main" roads, I can't help but see this as wasted space. At least some of the garages have rooms above them.
The situation isn't much better at other developments, like Lakelands in Maryland. In fact this is significantly worse, with not even a hint towards more efficient space use. The asphalt is also uglier than the concrete in Daybreak.  
This is how they used to do it in the 19th century, an age when beauty was far more valued than it is today. This is Kynance Mews in London. A mews, if you didn't know, is where horses were kept - stables. Note as well the dramatic entrance gate. I find it deeply disappointing that cheapness seems to be our main priority now. 
More Lakelands, a rather drab looking place. There's very little greenery to speak of, except a few "shared" places (read: land nobody will use). But if not for the garages, or if the homes were 3 instead of 2 stories, there'd be plenty of land for back gardens. 
It really doesn't seem like too much thought was placed into planning the development. 
Neighbouring Kentlands, one of the first New Urbanist communities, although even from a distance a superior development, does occasionally exhibit similar issues. 
Baldwin Park, Orlando. Why do all the lots have to be the same size?
Developers like to present these TNDs as the next great thing, but are they really that different from 1970's developments like the infamous Irvine? I don't think so. Narrow lots, small front yard, back alley for the garages, it's all there.
An established neighborhood in Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles also pretty much there. 
Stapleton, a TND in Denver. Note the hint of a backyard with the homes on the left, something the rear alley makes impossible as seen on the right. Such large, sprawling homes should really be 3 stories, after which one could have a small inner courtyard.
When one first sees these townhomes in Stapleton, it's easy to think that they're really not all bad, right? 
And then you see the back... No backyard to speak of. 
Compare that with 19th century Park Slope in Brooklyn, where the rowhomes have substantial back gardens, despite this being a very dense area.
Victorian terrace housing in Bath, England with, again, plenty of garden space.
How it used to be done

Most of the new developments seem to place a high priority on being different. Small, irregular grid patterns seem to be a particular favorite. No doubt meant to evoke medieval streets, which evolved organically over hundreds of years, these are obviously arbitrary and just confuse navigation. Being lost is no recipe for walkability.  

Here are some traditional neighborhoods from around the US and UK which check all the boxes while maintaining clear, regular grid patterns. Also note abundant gardens. 

Charleston is one of the oldest cities in the US, and arguably the most beautiful. Lots come in varied sizes and shapes and the city is immensely walkable despite no large buildings some quite large city blocks. This organic nature allows some homes to have larger gardens, others small ones, but crucially none are the same. 
Despite its age, I think Charleston provides one of the best examples for future developments. It's not incredibly dense like Manhattan, which allows for good-sized gardens, but it's still dense enough to be walkable. I think it's a model that even a typical suburbanite is more than happy to live in. In fact, the city's beauty and variety makes it more likely that someone will walk. Many of the TNDs are so boring and uniform that it discourages walking.   
Possibly because it's so close to Charleston, the I'on development in Mount Pleasant, planned by DPZ, is one of the few modern developments to have such varied lot sizes, which greatly contributes to its more varied streetscape and attractiveness. 
Another example from London, these Victorian blocks in Kensington, a mix of single-family townhomes and some converted into apartments, show that it's very possible to have high levels of density in the heart of a big city and still have large gardens in the back. 
Acclaimed Notting Hill in London is very unique not just for its white stucco terrace housing and radial street pattern but also for it's private shared gardens between blocks. Some of the luckier residents, as you can see here, also have their own gardens, so it's the best of both worlds. 
Going back across the pond, this is Georgetown in Washington DC. The large blocks leave ample space for gardens, and most of the neighborhood is in easy walking distance to the commercial M Street and Wisconsin Avenue.
Alexandria, Virginia. Only thing I don't understand here are the super wide streets.
San Francisco is one of the densest cities in the country yet many of these rowhomes have gardens in the back.

I hope these images have sufficiently demonstrated that density and walkability are not independent of private gardens. That in fact some of the most loved and successful historical neighborhoods have plenty of greenery. 

Towards solutions

I'm not going to beat around the bush - it's probably quite clear that this balance is very difficult to achieve if cars, or more specifically garages, are part of the mix. Unless you're ok with having the garage in front, which some even very narrow townhomes in San Fransicsco do. Sometimes it looks ok, but never as good as it was before the transformation, and it requires a walk up to the front door. Plus as a piece of infrastructures it's much more significant than the average suburban garage, and those suburban developers really care about cost efficiency as we know.

I do think that a more advanced level of infrastructure should be expected, however, even if that means slightly higher home prices. Here in Switzerland I've seen underground parking built for a development of 4 single family homes, in a village of 700 people. Now that's clearly overkill and vastly inflates prices unnecessarily. One idea I propose, which allows for keeping the rear alley while losing much less garden space, is to sink the alley by several feet and have a garden or deck on top of the garage. It's sort of a modern evolution of the mews, as many of those are below street level as well. 

Here's a quick render of this:

One side I've shown with a garden atop, the other a deck.
This would be relatively inexpensive to build and still leaves plenty of space for gardens, so the rear alley wouldn't have to be such an ugly afterthought as it is in most developments today. Here I have it in a configuration with a semi-detached/duplex house as I think they are the most efficient home configuration. No wasted land on the sides as with most detached homes, but you still have one side free for access. 

Or it might just be easiest to go back to a tried and tested model, the garage behind the house. This configuration requires lots slightly wider to accommodate a driveway but total area is no greater as there's no need for a rear alley. There's still plenty of space for a garden, and would also be very efficient if combined with semi-detached housing. 

Pasadena, CA has a lot of homes with garages in the back and it works. Here I've photoshopped the image slightly to shorten the front yards, allowing an easier comparison with the newer TNDs

So that's all the images I have to share today. We can safely conclude that things could be done much better than they usually are, though truth be told there is no better way to bring about change than to make sure that communities are walkable. That means the ability to live your day to day life without using a car. A car should not be required. At the very least it should be rare for any one household to have more than one car which is mainly used for out of town travel. That's the truth. Maybe it's uncomfortable for some but I think most suburbanites seemly haven't experienced how liberating an average day can be when one isn't dependent on the automobile. Though I often hear "I didn't even need a car!" as a positive endorsement for a vacation in NYC or somewhere like Seaside. Not to mention the money the average family could save from ditching a car or two. 

We used to know how to do that. Beloved places like Charleston, Georgetown, and San Francisco are testament to that. We still haven't relearned the lessons from the past, which is why we keep making missteps with newer developments. 

It's simple. If we want density, walkability, gardens, and beauty, cars need to be relegated to the optional pile. Thanks for reading. 


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...