Showing posts with label Theory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Theory. Show all posts

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.

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.

Main Street, Springfield, MA 1908
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.

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.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Where's the personality?

A stroll down a historical street yields a host of emotions, so full of character are the buildings. Some are cheerful, others somber, many elegant, a few charming. These oldtimers can be light or heavy, but above all there is an imbued honesty never found in contemporary buildings. There's no tricks to make them stand, no hidden steel beam covered by wood, no steel frame behind a drywall cover. No, with old buildings what you see is what you get. A stone wall is a stone wall, brick is brick. 

St Alban's Quad
Whimsical and charming yet still elegant, traditional architecture is imbued with a wealth of emotions
Today, buildings and cities lack character, the personality utterly nonexistent, mystique impossible. In their quest to strip buildings of decoration, Modernists stripped them of everything else as well, leaving buildings as nothing more than geometrical shapes in the sky. The wild and unrestrained buildings of some contemporary architects, while in some ways a step in the right direction, almost never make any concessions to local considerations. Whether in England or the Middle East, their buildings look the same. Some of this architecture in particular seems bound by the limitations of computer modelling, the geometric edges and curves softened by a software's meshsmooth modifier, the way they are because of what is easy to do with software. But I don't mean to single any particular architect out, for many of today's architects are guilty of gross negligence. Their ignorance of site and context is baffling, and immensely frustrating. Over and over, their buildings play right into the hands of poor planning, sited on a big plot of land or surrounded by a huge parking lot.

Famous architects are much more influential than any urban planner and they have a duty to join the urban debate. There is no glory in designing a popular museum if it doesn't on some level improve the quality of its surrounding context. Otherwise the architecture is as shallow as much of today's pop music, good for a few listens and forgotten once the next hit comes along. 

To get back to character. I simply don't see any hiding among the crazy shapes. These buildings have no face, no common grounding with which the city dweller can relate. Without these all important features one cannot say they have a soul. They will not sag with age, not develop a patina, or age gracefully into ruins. No, at most they will crack and crumble to reveal steel reinforcing rods, that hidden ingredient without which they could not stand. Like a robot, they may be fascinating, at times awe-inspiring, but one cannot have a conversation with contemporary architecture. No dialog or long term relationship can spring from an object with no soul. Standing one after another, these characterless buildings have clustered into a collection of objects which can hardly be considered a city, devoid of community, engagement, and life. 


On a recent trip to Zug here in Switzerland, it was clear that the town had grown relatively little over the past few hundred years. Until after the war that is. The compact Altstadt (old town), full of 400 year old homes clustered around the lake, is surrounded by postwar apartment buildings and homes climbing up the hills. A large cluster of new office buildings and shopping centers is a result of a recent boom, born out of the Canton's status as tax haven (there's one registered company for every man, woman, and child). Most of this new construction is of a purely economic nature, meaning little effort has been placed into making it attractive and well-planned. On the outskirts of town, large Swiss corporations have their headquarters, as well as huge global corporations like Glencore, one of the world's largest private companies (it would be in the Top 20 on the Fortune 500 if it were public). Usually these headquarters are modest, holding just a small fraction of their respective global employees. Like industrial or office parks in the US, they're nestled on cheap land in the suburbs, with large areas of land wasted on parking lots and the rarely used "green lawn".

Zug's old town is surrounded by postwar development and office parks
This postwar trend of building workplaces far from the city center is a complete reversal of historic practice in which the office was in the center of town within walking distance of workers' homes. Even in the early 20th century, the outskirts of town were for new middle-class suburbs, not offices. The effects of this new trend are most curious in Europe, where many workers still live in or close to the city center, not in the surrounding suburbs as they often do in the US. This has resulted in a wide dispersal of the population during the day, with some workers coming in to the center, some out of it. Or in the case of Zug, driving through the center to offices beyond, because while most offices are north of the old town, the nicest residential areas are south along the lake or east in the hills. There is therefore a steady stream of cars going to and fro through the old town at all hours of the day, relegating the historic center to nothing more than a tourist interest instead of the heart of daily life as it should be. 

Canary Wharf in London is another prime example. This twenty year old skyscraper district is located a few miles from the city and is a major global financial center, home to banks suck as HSBC and Citigroup, and media group Thomson Reuters. Ringed by a relatively poor part of London, the choice for workers is either to live in nearby high-rises or take the tube from the city. The first choice is really only suitable for workaholics as there's no life in Canary Wharf on weekends, so unsurprisingly most workers choose the latter, especially as their high paying jobs mean they can afford the large historical homes of north London, conveniently located on the Jubilee Line, which takes them straight to their jobs. 

The Jubilee Line carries workers to Canary Wharf from wealthy North London suburbs such as St. John's Wood and Hampstead
The same story is becoming increasingly common throughout the world, in any city where suburban living doesn't dominate. Is this a long term trend we're seeing and how sustainable is it to require workers to commute to out-of-town locations with poor public transport access? Well, not very sustainable at all and I can't see it continuing as a business model if gas prices keep rising and as cities struggle under growing populations and traffic. Most troubling perhaps is that the urban debate about the problems of a separation of uses has failed to penetrate mainstream planning. Almost no effort is shown to integrate the various facets of life, and I'm very frustrated by planners ignoring the social benefits of city centers. Once the hub of work, shopping, and entertainment, the city center was always the key to community strength. Nowadays, however, it is perfectly easy to never step foot in the city center. This has also had devastating consequences for civic pride, but that's a topic for another post. In the near future I would like to see office and industrial parks relegated to the history books and a return of mixed use districts in cities. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cities losing out? I think not

Perhaps you've recently seen articles with early reports of census results, some of which show that suburbs continue to grow at a faster pace than inner cities. I've yet to find the statistics, but I think it's a bit premature to say that Americans are not moving back to urban cores just because the population figures don't show it. Besides the obvious reason, that suburbs have a lot more capacity than cities to expand, these census reports ignore the details of what kind of growth is occurring among which demographic. In reality, one cannot ignore the renewed interest cities are getting among the media, film, and young people desperate for interesting living environments. 

These reports ignore the likely population shifts happening in cities as a result of gentrification. For example, a low income multi-unit townhouse being bought out and converted to a single family home. Within one restoration, a building such as this can go from being occupied by several people to as little as one. A few dozen, or hundreds of such situations, and of course the population of the neighborhood goes down. A bad thing? Not necessarily. Gentrification can be a powerful force in revitalizing neighborhoods, especially if it results in greater diversity among inhabitants. A mixed use, mixed income neighborhood is the social ideal. I hope the young professionals who have been rehabilitating American cities find the experience to be what they'd hoped, and will continue to preach the benefits of city life.

Other reports are suggesting that college graduates are not flocking to trendy urban coastal cities such as San Francisco, New York, or Seattle but in fact to sun belt cities such as Austin or indeed to suburbs of unremarkable cities. Now, I think that's a pretty broad assessment. A lot of young Americans these days are getting college degrees, across the complete spectrum of the nation. To base any conclusions from such a simple generalization doesn't really say anything, not to mention it ignores the simple fact that young graduates gravitate towards jobs, not necessarily where they want to live. And as long as "bigger is better" prevails, there will be a certain reluctance to live in a small apartment when for the same price one can live in a large house in the suburbs. What I'm interested in is not where graduates are going, but where are the best graduates going? Not just the fancy public administration degrees, but the Harvard, Yale, and Columbia graduates? Young lawyers, bankers, and MBA's? In my opinion that would give a far better indication of the desires of the future generation of leaders. 

1770's Charleston mansion
I don't think I'm crazy for believing that most people, given the choice, would still prefer to live somewhere interesting, somewhere they know their neighbors and can choose among a host of residential options. A beautiful home in a charming part of town. Please, don't tell me a suburban McMansion or cookie-cutter home is beautiful. It isn't. A townhouse in Savannah or brownstone in Brooklyn, they are. Any day of any season. I would be disappointed in any individual who would look at them and still maintain that suburbs are a more pleasant living environment. Having lived in the suburbs for most of my life and recently in the city, I'm stumped by how often the convenience of a car is cited as a reason for living in the suburbs, sometimes above all other criteria. Beauty, however, is almost never cited as a deciding factor, if it is considered at all. I ask that homeowners do consider it, and choose to live somewhere truly special. Cities like Charleston are not just possible as a weekend getaway, but wholly possible to be a reality throughout the nation, if only there was the will. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011


A city is a collection of its people. Their jobs, families, homes, schools, offices, opinions, choices, and countless other minute details. How far can a city's population deviate before it loses not just its character but its very identity? One decision follows another and soon enough a city may be unrecognizable, not at all resembling the collection that it once was. They may as well change the city's name. 

In moving to the suburbs, in propagating the growth of suburbia, Americans were not merely transferring their lives from one part of the city to another. No, they were abandoning the very patterns and collection of ideals which characterized their cities. Left to rot and decay or invaded by skyscrapers, downtown America has been transformed beyond all recognition. The choice to abandon cities and neighborhoods was tantamount to a death warrant. 

Our built environment has such tremendous influence over our daily lives. Can we even identify with the nation of our ancestors, so different is our way of life today? What, truly, does the United States of 2011 share with the US of 1911? Of 1811? Up until the 1950's, the argument could be made that there were many similarities in the way of life and therefore the thought patterns that bound the nation. But after the 1950's, after the widespread domination of automobiles and the onslaught of suburbia, I find the argument much contrived. We are no longer the same people, we do not live our lives among our cities and see our homes by foot, but instead live among strip malls and approach our homes in cars. Look out your window. Unless you live in a historical part of town (unlikely), what out there binds you with your city? Not much, I'll wager. Likely you live in a suburb which could be anywhere in any part of any city in the country. If you live in a Victorian in San Francisco, a Greek Revival in Savannah, or Brownstone in Brooklyn, among many other fine options, I hope you appreciate where you live. That sense of identity is increasingly rare. 

Sense of place binds a nation. I believe feelings of guilt and responsibility are appropriate for what amounted to the end of a way of life which had sustained for centuries, for an unraveling of our bindings. It was almost like leaving the nation and starting anew. A single invention, the automobile, was allowed to waltz in and hijack a country. Worse, nearly all alternatives were obliterated, such as the dismantling of the streetcar network. Suburbs so dominate the available choices today that any other option seems impossible to contemplate, especially if the government continues to subsidize suburban developments in the form of infrastructure and federally backed mortgages. But change it must, if we are to once again recognize our way of life.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Not some pushover

Architects, in contrast to common perception, are not a well paid lot. In fact, most make salaries not much better than engineers and certainly nowhere near lawyers or doctors (despite going to university for just as long). It's often said it's a profession you choose for the love of the job, not for the money. All fine and dandy, but who says lawyers and doctors don't love their job? In the end it's all about business, about money. Architects don't directly make or save clients' money as lawyers do and they sure don't save lives. And with any engineer able to make drawings just as well, there isn't an absolute requirement to have an architect involved. All of which translates to a world in which architects find themselves increasingly pushed to the sidelines, into a never-ending fight to convince the building trade of their continued relevance. The consequences of this are visible everywhere, and we now live in a world more ugly than it ever has been. 

I was reminded by this again by a Wall Street Journal article about skyrocketing lawyers' fees, which now reach as high as $1250 an hour for stars of the profession! "We'll keep paying them a lot of money, because they're worth that," said a General Electric counsel in the article. That's the weekly salary of a young architect and according to the Department of Labor, the average hourly rate for architects in 2008 was $39.60. Quite a contrast. 

The law profession, especially in the US and UK, is a very tight knot group, what with bar associations and the fact that many politicians are themselves lawyers. Lawyers have been looking out for themselves for centuries and it's very difficult to do anything in the Western world these days without the guidance of a lawyer. The same cannot be said about the architectural profession, despite professional bodies such as the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) and AIA (American Institute of Architects). Infighting is common, with architects often undercutting their competitors or refusing to pay interns. Just last year the RIBA experienced a significant internal power struggle over such issues. How can the profession expect to be respected by their clients if they cannot even reach consensus among themselves? Don't air your dirty laundry, we are taught, yet architects do so again and again. 

Arguably, there is in my mind another possibility, that being not solely the unprofessionalism of architects' respective bodies but namely the presentation of individuals. For you see, many architects fancy themselves the starving artist... and look the part. I had a similar discussion with my colleagues while an architectural assistant in London, and it wasn't something they'd really thought about before. But how can architects be surprised by their hierarchy in the business world if they show up to work in jeans and a t-shirt? Like it or not, people base their impressions about others based on the way they dress. If an architect is meeting with a client, who likely is a successful businessman, should they not meet them on equal terms? Should they not at the least dress the part of an equally successful professional? The client should think, should have no doubt, that they are dealing with someone worth the money, not some pushover. 

If architects want to play poor artist or cool hipster, they should do that on their own time, not degrade the reputation of the profession. Architects are an absolutely fundamental part of our everyday lives, shaping the cities, streets, and buildings which occupy every minute of our waking hours. But if they can't make the sacrifice to wear a suit, maybe they deserve the degrading position they now occupy. Maybe they're fine with dissolving into the history books and abandoning cities to those who couldn't care less. 

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Down with suburbs, long live cities

Earlier this week Harvard economics professor Edward L. Glaesner wrote a post on The New York Times' Economix blog arguing that cities have been the starting point of social unrest for centuries. Glaesner is a fan of urbanism, writing in past posts in support of greater densities and the benefits inherit in large cities. Here he specifically mentions that Tunisia and Egypt could not have started their uprisings without the energy and vitality present in cities and densities large enough to overwhelm local law enforcement. And the narrowness and multitude of streets makes any counter effort difficult. It's hard to argue against the overthrow of repressive governments, but things are rarely that simple.

Baron Haussmann's transformation of Paris in the 1850-70's may have created some of the world's most elegant boulevards, but this was no city beautification project. This was a military project and therefore garrisoned the full support and resources of the ruling elite and city officials. For you see, Paris had already experienced two revolutions in the years proceeding the project and Napoleon III did not want a repeat. Wide boulevards meant the military could traverse quickly and efficiently and monuments such as the Arc de Triomphe doubled as military lookouts. As a bonus, the altering construction would cut through the heart of ancient neighborhoods and dispose of the rebelling poor. Paris experienced no further revolutions. 

After WWII, the US started construction of a national highway system, which despite the massive effort and costs involved, sailed through Congress and to date has cost taxpayers nearly half a trillion dollars. One cannot pretend that the government has spent, and continues to spend, that kind of money solely for the convenience of motorists, who for millennia got on just fine without cars. No, to President Eisenhower this was a military project, designed to cut travel from one coast to the other from two months to two weeks. As in Paris a century earlier, this military project had little trouble garnering the support of the ruling elite. That the highway system spawned suburbia is perhaps a bonus, whether planned or coincidental I don't know, but undoubtedly welcome to an elite who, even in America, cannot help being paranoid. America was after all founded thanks to a revolution, and liberal gun laws make a repeat far easier to accomplish than in Europe, that bastion of pacifists. As Glaesner points out, riots and revolutions are not the product of poverty, but of unemployment, something the US is struggling to contain

I grew up in suburbia and the stereotypes are true. Neighbors don't interact in the suburbs, there's no cheery front porch talk and no group discussions. People who move to the suburbs are for the most part perfectly happy to live their own lives. There's no pot to stir, no one's feathers to ruffle. And the clear separation of incomes that suburbs impose means one group doesn't know what the others are doing or feeling. In short, no riots in the suburbs. It's therefore no surprise to know that suburbs have always and continue to receive large financial incentives from the government and private banks such as FHA insured loans and zoning laws.

Summer in Manhattan
flickr : Majestic Moose
If indeed society is to avoid stagnation as Jane Jacobs warns in Dark Age Ahead, much more decisive steps must be taken to prevent the rise of suburbia, and not just in the US, but most importantly in the developing world, where at present suburbia is most fashionable. These quickly changing countries are most vulnerable to the threat of suburbia as they have seen countless changes in the past century. Whereas the Western world developed at a relatively slow pace and therefore preserved its culture, developing nations risk losing their culture and identity irreparably unless they make a concentrated effort not to. Most importantly, nations must look to urban cities, as they have in the past. None of this "but the people want suburbs" nonsense. There's a huge chunk of the population which has no choice. That choice must be reclaimed. It is in cities where the arts develop, where people of different race, wealth, and background intermingle, where spontaneous conversations are held, where one can walk to and fro, and where thousands can gather to have their voices heard. It is in cities where culture grows, develops, and adapts. In the suburbs one finds slow yet certain cultural deterioration. In the suburbs is only the end.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Worlds Collide: A critique of the contemporary

This is an essay I wrote for a class in the second year of my architecture degree. Meant to address our hopes and expectations for our future careers, it was an opportunity for my classmates and I to examine the choices we had made, and I found it an enjoyable exercise, though those with less conviction found it to be a difficult task. Though my views have since changed in many ways (it was written before I became seriously interested in urban issues), it is largely still applicable to the person I am and how I view architecture. 

Worlds Collide: A critique of the contemporary

The world is undoubtedly going through enormous changes. Cracks are starting to show at the upper echelons of society and unrest is growing. Back home unemployment has surpassed its highest levels in a quarter of a century and keeps growing exponentially. Especially in Europe, a tide of dissatisfaction is sweeping the lands, with protests and riots in traditionally restless countries such as France and Greece becoming increasingly frequent. And yet, the purpose of them is not altogether clear. Certainly the economic crisis is to blame, but it was little more than a trigger, as Mark Mardell writes for the BBC. A senior diplomat tells him that he “can’t believe that people are still walking around just doing their jobs, going about their lives.” Mardell concludes that “maybe it is because they don’t know what to demand”. It is a vague thing, this dissatisfaction, felt but not wholly defined. Millions protest, yes, but for what? I must agree with Mardell when he says that they shout for everything and yet nothing. People know that life is not as good as it could be, and it is not hard to see that modern Western society is crumbling, but they are lost as to what to do about it or who to blame. This very same vagueness permeates through every part of life, whether it is family, fashion, design, you name it. It is commonly said that architecture reflects the general mood of the time, the spirit of the time, or zeitgeist. It is no surprise then that architecture today is in a state of limbo, a random assortment of styles present. None of which, it must be said, shows clear conviction. Architecture, like life, is lost. 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Not just any home

Success in urban design relies greatly on what dimension is used, the situations expected at any given time. Take Le Corbusier's Plan Voisin. In his drawings we see aerial views, plans, and sketches with towers in the distance, with a motorway figuring prominently. The human dimension, the street, is missing. Successful streets require the designer to think at all times at the street level, imagining the view from below and the kind of activities that can result. 

When I think about residential neighborhoods, a street view is essential. The emotions a place can elicit are crucial. Take a home, your home or one you like. Imagine leaving it in the morning a few days before Christmas to pick up a friend or relative from the airport. What is that journey like? Does your city or town provide the stage for this journey to awaken the kind of emotions a Christmas visit should? 

Getting off at the nearest transport station or drawing closer in the car, think about the streets that will greet you and your visitor, and finally, arriving at your destination or pulling up in the driveway, what sensation will your guest have? Awe, disappointment, happiness, regret? Is it the kind of home you can imagine your wife or kids running out from to greet whoever has come or must you first traverse a labyrinth of unpleasant stairs in an unpleasant apartment building? This being Christmas, will the journey's end have a holiday feel or is the time of year irrelevant? Will there be tears of joy? These are the situations, the questions I wish all homeowners would ask themselves. Your home is your second half, ideally. To me no less important than a girlfriend or wife, certainly equal to a friend. It's your home after all. What kind of life do you have if you can't feel proud of and as one in the place you live and breathe in? 

A neighborhood is a collection of many individual's and family's homes, the threads of many lives past and present. A collective mix of these threads and emotions form the psych of a neighborhood, build a community, and influence whether or not any one place can feel like home or just another stop in the road. 

Monday, December 20, 2010


Before I get to the San Francisco case study, here is my final year dissertation about the growth of suburbia in the United States. It's long, yes, but it sets the tone for this blog. 


For generations the United States has been the land of opportunity. The nation has been a beacon for millions to escape the bonds of a previous life and start anew. It is a nation constantly striving to be the biggest, the best, and the first. This pioneer spirit pushed westward to unexplored territory, invented the nuclear bomb, and put a man on the moon. On an individual level this spirit is reflected in the loosely defined tenets of the American Dream, which has been at the heart of the nation’s development since the term was coined in 1931, but dreams drove the Puritans in 1630 just as strongly as they did the earliest suburbanites. The American Dream is a mixture of aspirations and goals, some easier to meet than others, but its loose definition guarantees that it means something different to every American. The dream of your own home is an undeniable constant across all walks of life, however. This singular constant has contributed to the relentless growth of suburbia, a wave of single-family homes stretching for miles, one mile very much like the next. Once outlying districts, newer cities such as Los Angeles and Phoenix are nothing but suburbs, with every imaginable activity given its own zone. Across the country, Americans have very little choice but to live in the suburbs, other forms of housing usually nonexistent and often illegal due to local codes. An inescapable element of most Americans’ lives, suburbia is not just a form of city, but a dictator of lifestyle, a sorting machine which compartmentalizes based on perceived identities.

Suburbia is one of the most significant aspects of the American way of life, but from its start it has been criticized by architects, planners, and those in opposition to its monotony as an inappropriate representation of American individuality. Movements such as the New Urbanism have been gathering significance as offering alternatives to suburban America without letting go of the traditional values of the American Dream. Such movements envision American cities wherein community once again plays a role in the American way of life, where ones’ home is not an individual entity but part of a greater whole. These movements acknowledge the automobile’s role today while proposing communities dense enough to make walking a viable option for daily errands. Without a wholesale re-examination of the American city, however, how much of an impact can individual new developments have? Is the American city in need of a few careful adjustments or a more radical approach?

One did not come to the United States to retire, to sit back and let the world pass by unnoticed. No, one came to the United States to do great things, to start a new life. One came full of energy, hope, and ideas. And first and foremost one came with dreams for a better life for themselves and their family. This was a land which promised everything to everyone. Some came for the land and a house, while others for ideals, freedom, and opportunity. But everyone had a dream. One of the world’s youngest nations, early Americans could write their own stories, free of the bonds of their forebears. For John Winthrop and his fellow Puritans, this young new world promised religious paradise. For Martin Luther King Jr. it was racial equality. And for thousands of others this has been a land where “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” That, of course, is the idealized promise. That many of those who wrote, witnessed, and signed the Declaration of Independence were themselves a slave owner is an oft dismissed yet uncomfortable fact. The history of the United States is full of such irregularities but also of rapid changes. The United States is a nation which suffered, and continues to suffer, many bumps along its way.