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!”

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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.

The next tallest skyscrapers (and how vertical sprawl is better than horizontal sprawl)

A few weeks ago the Burj Khalifa in Dubai was officially anointed as the tallest skyscraper in the world. As tall as it is (2716.5 feet, or approximately 828 meters for everyone outside of the U.S.) it may barely break the top ten of tallest buildings in the world within the next decade. These buildings (some of them proposed, some of them merely dreams), as listed on the Popular Mechanics website, will not only reach higher than the Burj Khalifa but in some cases dwarf the current tallest building in the world.

There is nothing new about dreaming up the tallest building in the world. Frank Lloyd Wright designed (at least in a preliminary/schematic approach) a building that was to be a mile tall (5,280 feet for anyone outside the U.S. that has absolutely no idea what a mile is). (As seen at this website, along with some other buildings that have yet to come to fruition.)

Of course there are a lot of technical issues with constructing a building as tall as these. One issue is the requirement of constructing a large enough foundation to anchor the mass of the building as well as handle the intense horizontal loads created by the wind (especially the more intense velocity of the wind at the heights of the skyscrapers) hitting the profile of the building. Another issue is creating a floor plan large enough so that it’s not primarily occupied with vertical circulation (such as stairs and elevators) and other shafts for mechanical ducts, and yet small enough so that a majority of the floor is near windows (this is for providing natural light to most spaces, which makes sense in regards to a physiological need because people need sunlight, and in regards to a financial standpoint because nobody wants to lease expensive office space unless there’s an abundance of natural light).

And another technical issue for these skyscrapers that is just as important is the ability to evacuate the building in case of an emergency (such as a fire or an attack). Tall buildings, especially ones reaching the heights of these proposed skyscrapers, must have ample egress and, because elevators (and in some jurisdictions escalators) are not considered proper means of egress, the stairs would have to be wide enough to accommodate the number of people working and residing in these skyscrapers. But of course the Burj Khalifa was constructed, so obviously these issues must have been solved.

I’m reading Green Metropolis (David Owen), and one of the interesting points the author makes is the inherent sustainable strategy that New York City provides by being a vertical city instead of a horizontal city. Skyscrapers provide a means that appears to make sense to being green – design for more people living on the smallest piece of land possible. The compaction of New York City forces residents to forgo the automobile as their primary means of transportation because most everything they require is in close proximity. The dense population also provides the necessary density to properly support public transportation.

I’ve heard it said that skyscrapers were designed to be monuments driven by ego and testosterone. I’m sure that is true, but the flip side is that these tall buildings provide a unique and theoretically simple means for creating a smaller physical footprint for living on, which leaves more land for food production and ultimately nature.

Imagine if our entire built environment emulated Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, where every single family in the country was given one acre to live on. (There are more dense parts of Broadacre City that included office buildings and apartments, but the core premise to the city would be that most families would each live on one acre.) Sure everyone could live closer to nature and frolic in the woods, but think of the amount of roads and other utilities (such as water and electricity) needed to connect to every residence, and the amount of police and fire protection needed to provide a quick enough response to each residence in case of emergency, and the amount of walking for kids trying to trick-or-treat (it could help cure the obesity problem in this country, although most kids would say “screw it” after going to only two houses).

If you know the reduce-reuse-recycle mantra of creating a more sustainable environment, you will understand that cities can become more ecologically responsible by reducing the amount of land for human occupation by growing vertically and not horizontally.

Think outside the parking box design competition – results

The results are in for the Think Outside the Box design competition sponsored by Designboom and Nissan. I find the typical parking lot to be the most unimaginative use of land and almost a complete waste of space and materials. Sure it’s a necessity for parking your car when you visit the local strip mall, but the potential for providing anything else worthy is completely untapped. It’s a microcosm of the gladiatorial relationship between people and automobile.

The top three entries probably best personify the theme to most of the designs – a parking structure that goes beyond our current acceptance of what a parking lot should be, a more typical parking lot that provides a secondary use for the land (i.e. produce energy), and a structure that uses the parking area to define public space with its mass and its facade (in this case a series of giant LED screens). I personally enjoy the ferris wheel parking structure because it leans more towards a built environment that resembles a structure (by its appearance and its use) from a Dr. Seuss story. (I’ve been reading a lot of Dr. Seuss to my son lately, so those illustrations are beginning to look like a more appealing reality than the typical beige suburban development I travel through.) But the ferris wheel parking structure also is along the same theme I have for a proposed mass transit system that resembles a roller coaster. (Also a Dr. Seuss induced construct, but seriously, who wouldn’t want to ride a ten-mile long roller coaster to work every morning? Imagine a world where people get to work laughing and high-fiving each other.)

Of course most of these entries are absurd, but they’re supposed to be – it’s an architectural competition. You can’t expect to get a good idea by just staring at the problem and repeating a solution that doesn’t work. There are enough proposed designs shown that I’m quite positive that you will see something that will make you utter “Wow, that’s actually a good idea.”

For a list of the entries check out www.designboom.com/contest/winner.php?contest_pk=29.

The future of cars and buildings

The above talk from TED features Larry Burns, the Vice President for Research & Development for General Motors. The future of the car – according to Burns – is based on replacing the internal combustion engine to the hydrogen powered engine. His belief is the automobile industry can keep making small energy improvements in the current cars it makes — or it can take a big leap forward to build a whole new kind of car.

Cars are really great at two things – they get us from point A to point B, and they consume fluids including gasoline, oil, coolants, and lubricants. There are some cars that get better gas mileage than other cars, some cars can haul more adolescent soccer players better than other cars, and some look cooler doing doughnuts in the Dairy Queen parking lot. Despite their specific utility functions and their inherent fashion, cars really just consume energy for transportation.

Larry Burns wants cars to act not only as an energy user but also as an energy producer. He states that if 4% of the current amount of cars in the U.S. were powered by hydrogen, the power produced by these cars could fill the entire power grid of the United States. The idea is that while your hydrogen car sat idle in the garage it could actually produce electricity and send that power back into the grid. (And since the only emission from the hydrogen-fueled engine is water vapor anyone trying to end their life while running the engine inside a closed garage will only be bothered by high humidity.)

Buildings are also good for two things – keep people protected from the elements, and provide a place to keep their stuff. Buildings, like cars, are more geared towards energy usage and not energy creation. Architects and everyone else involved with the design and construction of buildings must also heed Burns’ strategy of completely reinventing and redefining the status quo.

Buildings in the future will not only keep the rain out, or allow you to keep your stuff out of the rain. Nor will it be used as a medium for architects to muse about the theoretical constraints on the human condition. (Sorry for the archi-babble, but truthfully that’s how some architects view the purpose of designing buildings.) Buildings in the future will not only provide the basis of inspirational form and utilitarian function for living, but they will additionally function as a source for creating power and filtering the water we drink and the air we breath. They will become a magic box where the waste leaving the box will be as clean if not cleaner than the resources coming into the box.

The commitment for making the “big leap” requires a faith in knowing that you’ll achieve your goal as well as the rejection of the old ways of doing things. We have the technology and knowledge for creating a sustainable architecture, and the current method for constructing buildings is obviously not the solution for creating a more ecologically balanced environment. We as a society are more than ready for the “big leap.”

In case the above video is not displayed you can view the Larry Burns talk at http://www.ted.com/talks/reinventing_the_car.html