Category Archives: suburbia

Why the American dream is a tribute band

“Helloooooooo, Suburbia! (The audience goes wild.)

“When the tour bus got into town this morning we drove by some Santa Barbara-styled homes (loud roar from the audience) on our way to lunch at a post-modern strip mall (another loud roar).

“Now who’s ready to rock? (Yet another loud roar.) And who’s ready to rock AND roll? (Loud roar, with a hint of bewilderment.) Let’s get this party started with some Rick Springfield! (Guitar riff; thunderous roar; mosh pit ensues; tear gas fills the air.)

This is what entered my head as I looked upon the “Foreclosed” article and slide show at Architectural Record.

Suburbia needs help. It was designed with the mindset that energy and resources will always be inexpensive and abundant. The amount of energy and resources used per capita is proving to be unsustainable. So what do we do?

We can’t continue to build suburbia the way we’ve been building it. But we can’t build it in a manner that won’t be accepted by contemporary society. Our culture moves forward by being nudged, not by being thrown over a cliff. The short-term goal of redesigning suburbia should involve a nudge, and the long-term goal should involve a series of nudges.

In regards to city planning, one could argue that we’ve seen it all. These nudges are going to push the designs of our cities towards something we’ve seen in the past, but should it resemble something that’s worked before (i.e. a city plan that’s been inhabited for hundreds of years) or something that’s been proposed (i.e. a city plan that’s been drawn and not built, or that’s been built and rejected by its inhabitants).

Does this design by Studio Gang Architects really differ from this by Archigram? Is the Simultaneous City really that much different from Pruitt Igoe? Is this neighborhood really just this neighborhood plus Frank Gehry?

We’re stuck with suburbia (think of the environmental impact if we wiped the slate clean), but there’s no reason why it has to be a bad place. (Bad is highly subjective, although my use of bad involves its complete dependency on inexpensive energy and resources.)

Suburbia will become better by taking advantage of what’s already there with more density (not high-rises–remember, just a nudge), making purposeful use of the spaces between circulation and destinations (just a fancy way of saying design and make use of the wide open spaces throughout suburbia that currently are a waste of unoccupied lawns and parking lots), and subdue the car-centric attitude of design and focus on alternate means for people to get around if they want to walk (and accomplish something by walking other than burning some calories).

We have seen it all. Suburbia will always be a tribute band and, if successful, will probably look like something from the 80s–the 1780s.

“Rock me Amadeus!”


Starbucks and shipping containers

Finally, the two things that the U.S. has too many of–Starbucks and shipping containers–have finally combined into one.

Using shipping containers can possibly be a future trend for small businesses (or large businesses that require a small commercial footprint like a Starbucks) for its low cost, its potential for being mobile, and its ability to be placed almost anywhere (think of a coffee shop or a drive-thru grocery stand in a mall parking lot).

A mobile architecture for a mobile society.

Home of the future — 2015 edition

Despite there being a whole lot of pessimism in the architecture and construction industries today (thanks a lot Mayans), we will someday need new homes built. I know it sounds like a farfetched idea that somehow the current building stock won’t last us for another hundred years, but these new homes will need to be built adapting to current trends in design and energy use.

I came across this article on Yahoo! about homes built in 2015. Yes, 2015 sounds like this futuristic time when cars will fly, all diseases will be cured, and people will be able to share their music libraries between two different iPods. How different will our homes be in this future?

Probably the most obvious, due to many outside forces, is that homes will be smaller. Less to heat, less to cool, less to clean, less volume to fill up with crap, and less to build. Humans can definitely get by with less than 2,400 square feet of space, but Americans may have a harder time than most other cultures. But there are many “design devices” that can be used to make a smaller house seem much larger, such as increased window area (which will have to be cleverly shaded when the sun is not wanted) and placement of windows, and more open-space within the interior. Higher ceilings (but not too high) also work incredibly well. (They allow warm air to rise above the occupants, and simply make a room feel larger.)

Other design attributes listed from this article:

Spacious laundry rooms–as long as the laundry room is serving as another space, such as a hobby space or as a space to practice your jai alai.

Master suite walk-in closets–sure, just go against everything I said about smaller spaces.

Porches–an exterior space that, with the correct placement of decently sized exterior doors (like a Nana wall), can make an interior space feel much larger. It also adds a connection between the resident and the rest of the neighborhood by providing a place to enjoy your home while potentially meeting neighbors walking by. And it looks like the Cleavers house, which corresponds to my theory that architecture is slowly resetting itself back to 1950.

Eat-in kitchens–the death of the formal dining room means having another place to eat other than a tv tray next to the couch.

Two-car garages–come on, who doesn’t want a garage large enough to do doughnuts inside of while driving a Mini Cooper? Or at least an alternate space to play jai alai when the laundry room is occupied?

Ceiling fans–sort of like a fashion designer saying that the future of pants is a button with a zipper? The point is that we will become more dependent on efficient means of cooling like a ceiling fan than on air conditioning. We have an automatic response of turning on an A/C when the temperatures eek past our comfort zone. Our future society will need to learn that it’s okay to be 85% comfortable.

I look forward to a future of doing doughnuts in my garage learning to live more sustainable.

What should be the next urbanism buzzword?

Apparently the term “smart growth” is out of style as much as a Sony Walkman and Crystal Pepsi (tastes just like Pepsi, and now with more transparency!). In this article on Next American City’s website they are looking for the next urbanism buzzword. So, for you who are not in the know about urbanism slang (which I mean slang used by city planners, not urban youths), “smart growth” is out, and “intelligent cities” is in.

I’m not sure if the next urbanism buzzword will change anything. We use these terms to succinctly describe (apparently in two words or less) the strategy of designing our built environment and of protecting our natural environment. Seems like for something so important we could get away with using at least three or four words. These terms at least try to communicate a way to design our cities with a more holistic approach rather than a focusing on each parcel of land as though it existed in the vacuum of space-time.

So, if you’ve read all of Nostradamus’ quatrains and feel like sharing with the rest of us on what will be the next urbanism buzzword, you can post your suggestion via Twitter @NextAmCity, or on their Facebook page.



The democratization of public space

I love history. I believe that we do not live on preordained paths, but I also believe that history repeats itself. The second our present ends, it becomes our history. (Which makes me wonder how thick history books will be when my son reaches middle school.)

I’ve been captivated by the images and news coming out of Egypt, not because it fills my daily quota for violence on television, but because it’s history. I imagined this is how all democracies began. There’s a ruling monarch (whether it be a person of royalty or a person in charge of a dominant political party, the buck usually stopped with one person) that pushes just a bit too hard on the general populace, and then people begin to gather. Tens of thousands of individuals, independent moving cogs in society, take on one voice. And that one voice begins to echo from the most democratic space in all the land – the public square.

The public square has historically served as a center for commerce and a living room for societies, typically flanked by what influenced society the most when the square was built (like a market, cathedral, government building, or football stadium). In a bygone era when communication relied on word of mouth, the public square served as a beacon for information. It essentially served as a place where the government could influence its people.

Of course the flip-side to that is public squares became a place for impromptu gatherings of people to complain about the government, to voice concern over the imbalance of power, and in some instances as a spark for to overthrow the government. These gatherings are the very root of democracy – an uncensored discourse over civil liberties, and that a truly democratic government is one that fears the people, not rules over them.

And just like architecture, public spaces are filled with symbolism. I suspect there are many public squares in Cairo, and that the protesters could have voiced their message from any of them. But they chose Tahrir Square, meaning liberation square. The name evokes freedom, and the symbolism spawns a sense of destiny in the protesters’ cause.

So I began to think what if people in my immediate area wanted to protest against the government (I love what-if scenarios), where would they meet? Are there any public spaces that promote people coming together voicing their concerns, that convey the symbolism of freedom, that honor democracy? Do we design public spaces in this country that advance a public discourse on freedoms and liberties?

Democracy depends on civil participation. Without this participation democracy morphs into a type of government where our leaders assume more control. In order to answer if our public spaces are democratic, one only needs to ask if our spaces promote participation.

Architecture of wellness

There are many rules and guidelines that regulate the built environment. For the most part these rules and guidelines are in place to benefit the wellness of its occupants. The first building code involved protecting cities from completely burning down when a single fire would break out (think London and Chicago). As building codes evolved there became building codes that required fresh air in people’s sleeping quarters, stable construction so that buildings wouldn’t collapse during a minuscule earthquake, enough exits in a building so that everyone inside could exit in case of an emergency, and so on and so forth.

But what’s missing are guidelines on how a building promotes well-being. We spend a majority of our lives inside buildings, so doesn’t it make sense that buildings should be required to make your life better? Of course buildings improve life at a minimal level – they keep us warm when it’s cold outside (and vice versa), they’re fitted with electricity so that we can refrigerate our food, they protect us from bears – but do they improve life?

If you look at our homes and offices, you can easily argue that our built environment promotes a sedentary lifestyle. There’s a balance between providing resources for promoting a healthy lifestyle and the stimulation for motivating people to want a healthy lifestyle. If most suburban homes were within a quarter of a mile of a grocery store, and the path between these homes and the grocery store were designed to focus on the pedestrian (such as not requiring people to cross six lanes of traffic moving at fifty miles per hour, or not walking across acres of parking lot) then it’s safe to say that more people would walk to the store. But our built environments are generally designed to be focused on people traveling by car, so most people decide not to walk over a mile and across six lanes of traffic and parking lots. The same can be said of office buildings making it more convenient (and more accepting) to use the elevator than the stairs, especially in a two or three-story building.

I found the above sign near a pedestrian bridge in Denver that connects Lower Downtown with the Platte Valley neighborhood. I don’t know if the sign was in response to gang warfare between rival tai chi and tae bo classes, or if a group of weightlifters were trying to clean and jerk cars in the adjacent parking lot, but it seems to me that this sign epitomizes the problem with a built environment that is unable to promote a healthier lifestyle. There should be signs in every building that state “Please exercise“.

What’s old is new again – the American city

We as a culture, as a society, and even as a species are infatuated with the future. We look for trends that will tell us what stocks to buy, which team to win the game, which neighborhood to live in, and which type of car will save us money. Design tries the same thing as far as figuring out what the future will bring us, but the inherent problem with design trying to forecast the future is that it goes against the primary purpose for design – to solve problems. We design to solve problems, so if we don’t know what the chief problems are needing to be solved in the future then the design becomes art – philosophically inspirational, but functionally useless (unless the art is being used to prop a door open to allow a breeze in).

Design in the 20th century – especially in regards to architecture and urban planning – was paramount with redefining the 19th century city. The high density, mixed uses, and a focus on the pedestrian and centralized transportation were replaced with sparse development, separated uses, and a focus on the automobile with decentralized transportation. For the most part this modern approach to urban planning has failed (or at least is in the process of failing), and I guess it’s failed because it really wasn’t solving a problem. I think like other modern approaches to architectural design the new way of creating an urban fabric didn’t complement (or even try to complement) with what worked with the existing model of designing and constructing our urban environment. Instead of improving upon what already worked it started from scratch in an effort to redefine how people lived, and with that set itself up for complete failure.

So here we are, living in the early part of the 21st century. We’re already a full decade into the new millennium, and the trend in urban design does not involve blocks of equally spaced high-rises as far as thee eye can see, or living in large biomes designed to accommodate a million people, or space colonies that can be reached by space elevators. The look and feel of most newly designed urban environments look more like the 19th century American city.

As I read this article about the renaissance of streetcars in American cities, I began to think how future American cities will probably look more like 19th century cities. A lot of resources (money and materials) are devoted to the accommodation of automobiles in our cities. There is a fine balance between how many people a city can house with how many automobiles can be handled by its streets. If our cities are designed in a manner that requires every resident to own a car then there is a maximum number of residents a city can have before people have to move further away from the city.

In 2003 London created the Congestion Charge Zone in an effort to reduce the amount of automobiles driving through Central London. This might seem like a crazy idea, but I feel that larger cities will someday eliminate most vehicular traffic through their most dense areas. The less vehicular traffic means fewer resources and less land devoted to the automobile, which means more land to construct buildings to house more people and offices. And that translates a larger dependence on public transportation, which means less automobile ownership. And this ultimately means a city that looks more like the 19th century.

Images of suburban sprawl

Art for art’s sake –  it’s a phrase that comes up in architecture quite a bit. Architecture is supposed to have a balance between what works and promotes the intended program of the building, and what is pleasurable and enriches the soul. If architecture is merely an enclosure that fulfills a function, then it fails. If architecture only looks globular and theoretical, then it also fails. There must be a balance.

This balance also works at the macro scale of community development. If the design of a neighborhood or city reflects only the intended function (like providing areas to live and work, and circulation paths connecting these areas) without providing spaces for civic pride or a connection to the local landscape, then it fails. If the design represents curvilinear sweeps across the landscape without any meaningful connections between live, work, and play, then the design fails as well.

A photographer named Christoph Gielen has taken photos of suburban development that, in a way, almost reflects the same attitude in city planning that some contemporary “starchitects” have taken towards designing buildings – form follows form. The photos reveal a level of haphazard geometrical form making with little regard to functional attributes to form making such as local climate or societal connections. I have spent a good portion of my life living in suburban developments, and I have asked myself the same question over and over – who the hell laid out these streets?

A sign of good development is not the overbearing geometrical pattern consuming the macro scale of the environment, but rather the meaningful connections that promote a healthy lifestyle at the micro scale.

Fast food chains and LEED – Green building or green washing?

I guess I’ve reached that point in my life where I’ve started uttering sayings that somewhat come across as poetic. I don’t know if this happens to people when they’ve developed the ability to succinctly convey their wisdom from their cumulative experiences, or if it’s that their minds are fried and they really don’t have the answers to anything so they spout out clichés with the hope that no one calls them out on it. It’s probably somewhere in between.

My experiences with working for some unprofessional and unethical people has allowed me to develop this piece of advice – it’s easier to judge people based on what they do rather than what they say. It’s very easy to say all of the right things (especially when life is going well), but it’s so much more difficult to do the right things (especially when life is not going well). Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals character. (Consider that my second piece of old man advice.)

I came across this article stating how fast food chains are pursuing LEED certification for a handful of their stores. The quotes from the representatives of these chains include words like “smart” and “social responsibility” and “commitment to the environment” and efficiencies”. Of course these are all of the right words to say, and I’m sure some if not all of these people truly believe everything they’re saying. But again these are just words.

Starbucks has 11,068 locations within the United States (16,635 worldwide). According to the article referenced above, Starbucks has 9 LEED certified locations. Another way to state their commitment to LEED, approximately 0.08 percent of all of their locations are LEED certified.

There are over 31,000 McDonald’s in the world. Two of their stores are LEED certified, which means 0.006 percent of all of their locations are LEED certified.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. (You can thank Lao Tzu for that piece of old man advice.) Yes, it’s great that these corporations, who by their sheer size make an influential impact on our built environment, are beginning to implement design and construction practices that could potentially promote a more sustainable environment. But isn’t it a little too early to say that these corporations are demonstrating their commitment and passion towards social responsibilities?

Do you think people would believe you if you said “I believe in this activity so much I devote an entire 48 seconds doing it!” (Forty eight seconds being 0.006 percent of a day.)

Judge people based on what they do rather than what they say. It allows you to cut through the BS much easier.

Your living room – Coming to a fast food restaurant near you

Despite the obvious obfuscations taking place and driving our societies into oblivion, we are living in a very exciting time. And it’s not just because most people feel like everything is about to hit the fan (thanks a lot Mayans). I tell people our societal pains are emanating from the fact that what we in the past referred to as “normal” is being redefined – our work, our lives, our perceptions, and soon our fast food restaurants.

Everyone’s used to the fast food restaurant (and they’re all the same) where you ordered quick-made food, and (if you didn’t go through the drive-thru and found yourself trying to find the fries at the bottom of the bag while merging into traffic) you sat in a Timothy Burton-inspired dining area filled with prison-issue tables and chairs that evoked the feeling of being on suicide watch. The dining area was designed with the concept that if a patron suddenly exploded that the cleanup would be efficient.

Then along came Starbucks. I appreciate going to Starbucks not because they’re located within thirty feet of other Starbucks, but rather because each Starbucks typically has an individual decorum. (The one I frequent feels like a long linear living room with lots of light. The one across the street from that one feels more like a cozy basement family room. And the one on the other side of the parking lot has a sort of country kitchen feeling, open to the exterior.)

McDonald’s has now built a prototype of what it can be in the future. As an architect I should probably be more concerned with the exterior aesthetics of the McDonald’s of the Future, Today, but as someone who tirelessly searches for a comfortable urban-inspired interior out here in suburbia I find the living room-inspired spaces more appealing. No longer will the design of spaces be driven by the need to cleanup after a Mos Eisley style mess (think Han Solo shooting Greedo) but more about people actually enjoying themselves in a space (which in turn may psychologically help make the food taste better).

Our “normal” is changing every day. I’m glad to see that the new “normal” may include a side order of a recliner.