Category Archives: urban environment

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!”


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.

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.

How architecture helped music evolve: David Byrne on TED

I came across this interesting TED talk while reading my friend’s Intern 101 blog. In a previous post I mentioned my theory concerning form and function in architecture – form follows function follows form. Meaning, form and function are considered at the onset of an architectural project (not necessarily equal parts), and as the design process evolves the concepts of form and the practicalities of function begin to merge into an indiscernible goo in which the architecture is born from.

I’d like to think that culture and architecture follow the same process – architecture follows culture follows architecture, and, more specifically for David Byrne’s talk, architecture follows music follows architecture. David Byrne mentions traditional African music and how that music responded perfectly the natural and built surroundings, but his talk for me conjured up the image of a Greek amphitheater.

I imagine an incident where Socrates was lecturing to a group of people, and history’s first ever “Speak up!” was yelled from the back row. I’m sure Socrates’ response included something like “For the love of Zeus, will someone invent the damn amphitheater already!” (I have the impression the world’s smartest individuals throughout history were some of the angriest people since they constantly had to deal with people who were intellectually inferior, which would explain why Stephen Hawking has received sixty-five tickets from local police for street racing.)

The best example I can think of to demonstrate architecture influencing music is U2. When they started out, their simple style of performing reflected the venues of small clubs. As they became more popular they began playing in larger sporting venues, where their performing style incorporated jumbo screens and amplified music. Do you think U2 would use their stadium sets and pry them into a small Irish pub? (Walking into an Irish pub while dressed like the Village people, screaming lyrics from U2’s Pop album, and blinding the patrons with a police-issue strobe light is Suggestion #17 from “How to Start a Donnybrook in Ireland”.)

Our history and our culture have been influenced by our architecture, which of course has been influenced by our history and our culture.

Highways connect as well as disconnect

When the Interstate Highway System was first constructed in this country, it was envisioned that limited-access divided highways would provide faster, and thus more direct, connections between cities. These highways would promote free trade (quicker delivery times between farming communities and the major metropolitan areas) and provide a means for deploying defensive forces in case of a nuclear attack. (Notice how the loop highways around major cities are beyond the blast zone of an atomic/nuclear explosion when detonated downtown.)

The interstate highways have also provided connections between business districts (within a city as well as suburban areas) and residential zones. Despite these meaningful connections the highways have provided a permanent disconnect between adjacent areas. Interstate highways have typically reduced the vehicular and pedestrian connections between each side of the highways (overpasses and underpasses cost money).

One great example of this disconnect is in downtown St. Louis. The postcard image of downtown St. Louis always shows the Jefferson Expansion Memorial (known as “The Arch” to all of its friends) standing tall along the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, with the modest skyline residing behind. What the postcard doesn’t illustrate is the chasm separating the Arch grounds from downtown – Interstate 70. Highways are wide vehicular friendly areas that for some reason dissuade people from crossing. (Maybe it’s something in our DNA that goes back tens of thousands of years ago when we weren’t at the top of the food chain, and any time we walked across an expansive open plain we would typically be eaten by something higher up on the food chain.)

There is an architectural competition hoping to solve the interstate chasm between downtown St. Louis and The Arch. Of course this issue isn’t just in St. Louis, but also in most major cities with an interstate highway dissecting one vital neighborhood from another (which includes all major cities).

The solution needs to solve two issues – provide a connection between one end of the highway and the opposite end, and provide a connection between one side of the highway and the opposite side. The solution goes away from the either/or attitude that was predominant for designing our built environment after World War II (a circulation path is for either cars or pedestrians) and begins to embrace the pre-World War II attitude of both/and (a circulation path is for both cars and pedestrians).

One more hint that the City of Tomorrow will look like the City of Yesteryear.

House of the Future – (+) Apartment

When I picture the city and town of the future, I see a denser built environment than what we currently have, especially in suburbia. But it’s not very “green” to raze suburban neighborhoods and build denser habitats. A few things that most suburban neighborhoods have going for them (at least in my 1960s built neighborhood) are big ass yards and lots of street parking.

The house of the future – at least the suburban-infill house of the future – is a House (+) Apartment. There are two primary aspects for the (+) Apartment: the sociological part and the constructibility part.

The sociological aspect involves the reason of why should it be done. Why would anyone want to build an apartment onto their property? One reason is to have someone else pay for your mortgage, thus making home ownership more affordable to a lot more people. An apartment, say somewhere in the order of a few hundred square feet in area, would allow the homeowner to turn their property into something that makes money. And for security reasons this apartment would not have any shared spaces with the house and would have its own sleeping quarters, kitchen, bath, and a small yard that provides a more substantial connection to exterior space than the typical apartment building. And if your house is close to a desirable location that a renter would desire (like a college or mass transit) then the more rent the homeowner could charge.

The other sociological aspect involves family. There are two trends that may not change in the near future: children are living at home longer after high school graduation, and people are living longer after retirement. College is becoming incredibly more expensive, so a method for saving money is to live with parents. Retirement communities are also becoming more expensive, so a method for saving money is to live with children. A young adult attending college or a retired grandparent enjoying the rewards of working a hard life should command more respect than living in a spare bedroom at the end of the hallway. The (+) Apartment affords a level of independence that is deserving of them.

Now, the constructibility. The question of do we have the necessary technology to perform such a task is answered by the fact homes built a hundred years ago sometimes have these structures (whether if it was for carriages, horses, or servants). Of course not every home within suburbia has the necessary land or space of the garage, but as an architect I’m quite confident that if someone wanted a way to have a free mortgage then there is a way. There are other hurdles such as city ordinances allowing freestanding structures for the purpose of habitation, and setbacks from the house and neighboring houses, and setbacks from the street, but if cities want to increase their tax base without constructing more streets and stretching existing services then it can happen. Another bonus for the homeowner is having less grass to water (at least that would be a bonus here in the Front Range).

The House of the Future – free of charge! Who wouldn’t like that?

Reduce your way to sustainability

In architecture the terms sustainable and green are used to signify a design or construction method implemented for the betterment of the environment. (At least these terms started off being used for that purpose, and not for the marketing effort that seems to be more prevalent today.) These terms form the perception of designers and builders being more ecologically responsible. But true sustainability is a balance between energy in and energy out. If you consume more of the environment than can be replenished (both naturally and artificially) then the balance is off.

So architecturally speaking, can a building be considered sustainable if the environment around the building is not considered sustainable? Is a building green if everything serving the building (such as the roads, utilities, artificial landscape) is really not all that green? If every single building in the Phoenix metropolitan area was LEED Platinum and the metro area still had the suburban sprawl that it has today, would Phoenix become the quintessential sustainable city?

In Green Metropolis, David Owen makes the argument that the keys to sustainability are living smaller, living closer, and driving less. His arguments coincide with the Reduce part of the sustainability mantra of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Reduce your living quarters. Reduce the amount of area in your home you need to fill with your stuff, and clean, and maintain, and pay taxes on. Reduce the amount of volume in your home you need to heat and cool. Reduce the amount of lawn you need to water, spread fertilizer on, and mow.

Reduce your separation from the places you need and want to go. Reduce the number of places you can frequent without always having to drive your car. Reduce your risk of becoming obese and contracting diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, respiratory disease, and a score of other ailments. Reduce the number of excuses for not getting enough exercise (walking to go somewhere rather than walking for the sake of walking). Reduce the area that public services (police, fire, power, sewer, trash) need to cover.

Reduce your dependence on the automobile. Reduce the amount of miles you put on your car, thus reducing the amount of maintenance, gas, and other services done to your car. Reduce the amount of money you pay on car insurance (typically based on the number of miles you drive in a given year). Reduce your dependence on the cost of gas. Reduce the amount and size of roads needing to be built, and reduce the amount of maintenance required for these roads. Reduce the amount of traffic for the people who still require a car to get around.

The big idea that Green Metropolis is pushing is having communities designed for people rather than for automobiles. Of course there are still people in New York City that still have to drive. Public transportation and walking will not work for every single person. But wouldn’t you like the choice of being able to choose a method for getting somewhere?

Almost all of the cities and towns of North America are designed as a car monopoly. If you want to go anywhere you typically have the only choice of driving your car. Imagine if the only way to buy food was going to McDonald’s, and the only way you could get on the internet was through America Online. I’m not against the car. In fact, I love driving. I just like having a choice.