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.