Just over a week ago I was fortunate enough to attend one of the seminars at the CNU 17 (Congress of New Urbanism annual conference) here in Denver. The seminar was called Retrofitting Suburbia, and it was given by the co-authors of the Retrofitting Suburbia book Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson.
It’s obvious that suburbia is based on the ease of use for the automobile – the wide streets that allow faster speeds, the ample parking lots that at most times of the year remain for the most part empty, and the ubiquitous driveways that demarcate the garage door as being the new front door into our homes. Suburbia comes across as a haphazard “train wreck” development that is more driven by the profit margin of a development company rather than creating a livable environment (i.e. an environment that offers any other option other than getting in ones car and driving to a destination) for the populous.
This train wreck development is sorely lacking in any kind of meaningful design. And by meaningful design I don’t mean implementing an aesthetic that is pleasing (which of course is highly subjective), but instead I mean injecting a sense of purpose into the design, to create connections between buildings and open spaces, and ultimately build an environment that fosters personal interactions and promotes a democratic society. What suburbia does promote is a reclusive society that travels primarily in their cars and interacts with other people with their car horn and their middle finger.
So why has the last sixty years erased our knowledge of how to create viable communities? Has capitalism over-reached its bound and become more centralized to our society than democracy? We as a society are heading into a future where we know the current status quo can not carry us forward. The solutions for many of society’s problems – a more fuel efficient automobile, urban sprawl, obesity, a failing infrastructure – could be answered by asking one question – what if I could walk to the store?
Architectural competitions are typically aimed towards generating ideas from the architectural community, and if you’ve seen any images from a recent architectural competition you may think that the purpose of these competitions is to answer the golden question – shall the building consist of lots of sharp angles or will it look like a giant blob?
I came across a competition – Design It: Shelter Competition – that I’m confident that anyone (and by anyone I mean any person that is capable of operating a mouse on his or her computer) can participate in. The goal is to create a 100 square foot shelter with no utilities (meaning no electricity, no gas, no anything), and you can place this shelter anywhere in the world you would like. It also requires to use Google SketchUp and Google Earth, both of which are programs that you can download for free.
This competition utilizes one of the greatest assets that most people have – their imagination. This shelter is for studying and relaxing, so where in the world would you like to study and relax – a tropical beach in the South Pacific? The summit of a mountain in the Andes? On the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial? And how do you like to study – next to a roaring fire? Laying in a hammock? Hanging upside down like a bat?
I hope you consider participating in this. At worse you’ll learn how to use Google SketchUp and Earth, and stretch your imagination. At best you’ll spend a few days in New York enjoying a few museums and loving life.
My friend Mile High Pixie has posted an interesting article briefly describing the history of American Modernism (at least in regards to city planning) gone awry – Pruitt-Igoe. It was a large housing development located near downtown St. Louis modeled after Le Corbusier’s Plan Voison for Paris (which would have required the destruction of large swaths of Paris to implement, if it had ever been built).
There are many reasons why Pruitt-Igoe failed (and by failed I mean that it was almost entirely destroyed within 20+ years after it was constructed – I believe there’s still one or two buildings remaining), and none of those reasons are because of the modern aesthetic. These buildings could have been built to look like mega-colonial behemoths and the development would have still failed. Sorry Prince Charles.
And despite the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe (as well as Cabrini Green in Chicago) we are still living with the basic design principles of Corbu’s Plan Voison, which are instilled in most suburban developments. Here in the Denver Area we have a large corporate development called the Denver Tech Center, and if you squint your eyes you can see the similarities between this and Plan Voison (the DTC lacks the order of Corbu’s plan, but of course suburbia isn’t known for its order).
The history of American Modern city planning consists of many examples of inhospitable spaces that promoted a negative living environment on many different levels. The future of American Modern city planning is going to require a lot more dynamite.
There’s been a lot of talk about shipping containers being used as a residence, but not nearly enough about shipping containers being used as offices. I came across this project in Rhode Island that is apparently soon to be built. More examples of this type of approach are Puma City and Container City.
The only things offices and retails spaces need are space to construct the building and space for parking. Both of these are an ample supply thanks to the antiquated zoning ordinances that determine the amount of parking for retail developments and soon-to-be closing car dealerships. Of course there are also the empty lots that are prevalent in most cities as well. These shipping container offices provide a quick means of infilling the no-man’s land we call the asphalt parking lot and begin to create an exterior space more inviting for people.
I know most people are not exactly attracted to the modern industrial aesthetics of the shipping containers, and truthfully I don’t think the aesthetic is appropriate for all applications. I think it works great for Puma City in that it allows the retail function to be cleverly advertised on the exterior facade, but for some of these offices I think it would be perfectly fine to provide an additional layer to allow more insulation in the exterior wall as well as provide a screen so that the sun is beating down on all of that steel.
Despite your stance on the issue of creating buildings with shipping containers, the truth is these containers are an abundant resource in this country. What else are we going to create with them?