November 14, 2008


ordos desert, near site of the ordos 100

While I have a great deal of respect for at least some of the architects (LTL, for instance) involved in the Ordos project (and perhaps they will make something more of it than is apparent on the surface; that, after all, is what good architects should be able to do), today's Archidose image does little to allay the concerns raised in May by Lebbeus Woods:

A hint of trouble appears when we notice that Ai Weiwei's design company is called Fake Design. Sure enough, when we look at his overall plan for the development, we find that it copies American suburban tract developments from the 50s, say, in California's San Fernando valley. Cf. the movie, "The Two Jakes." Sand-blown, treeless, lifeless for all human purposes, but soon to contain "your Dream House"-- just sign here! The picture published in the New York Times of the invited architects surveying their desolate sites is absurdly comic and at the same time sad. What must be going through their minds? Is this the Weissenhof Siedlung for the new age? Can I make great architecture here? Will I be mentioned in next Times article? Or, did I come halfway around the world for this? Am I here as an architect, or as a pawn in Ai's latest art game?

The idea of building large private houses on three-quarter acre plots jammed together without regard for the spaces between or the relationship of one house to the next must be unsettling to many of the invitees, especially considering the history of American suburbs. Some have questioned the lack of even basic design or ecological guidelines in the planning, and may be wondering, too, if Ordos, of all the rapidly developing places on the planet, really needs a retro typology--however updated and upgraded--as the most visible symbol of its future. It would be a more hopeful harbinger of the future not only for this city, but the field of architecture in general, if a number of the Ordos 100 architects banded together and came up with a coordinated overall plan and insisted that it be adopted. And, if it were not, they would simply decline the opportunity.

Viewing the settlement as a whole as in the model, the houses seem not significant (as one might hope a collection of architects such as this could provide), but baubles scattered on the surface of the planning equivalent of a dead carcass; as Diego Penalver put it in the comments on Lebbeus's post: "this project seems like an architectural collection of a sort, where all architects have been called to solve nothing, or a very conventional program at best, an architectural figure show". While the search for beautiful forms is by no means a bad thing (in and of itself and considered out of context, I would argue that it is in fact one of the grandest things humans can do), it is hard not to find, in the concentration of the energies of so many talented architects on a project that does nothing to confront the enormous challenges facing China[1], a confirmation of the charge that architecture is an inessential discipline, of use only to those with the wealth or power to buy its decorative services. (And it is because I think that charge should and could be inaccurate that I find Ordos somewhat distressing).

[1] see NYTimes: "A noxious cocktail of soot, smog and toxic chemicals is blotting out the sun, fouling the lungs of millions of people and altering weather patterns in large parts of Asia..."; the spatial organization of Ordos implicitly endorses the continuance of the sort of urban pattern and living arrangements that is responsible for this 'noxious cocktail'.

October 27, 2008

big box urbanism

[this is a guestpost by stephen becker, to some degree in response to my post from a few days ago "big box flip-a-strip and darwinian retail". thanks, stephen. if you enjoy it, encourage him to get his own blog in the comments.]

It's hard for the architectural community to resist creeping schadenfreude regarding the collapse of so many big box stores, and I think that tone spills into discussions of how these behemoths may be appropriated by, and reconfigured towards, a post-suburban environment. Thus, most competitions and research projects (at least the ones with which I am familiar) deal with developing new programs for old boxes. Currently, these corridors are governed by very strict, banal, homogenous patterns of components and use. Without acting as an apologist for the often abysmal architecture and planning present in typical exurban retail developments, I think it's worth taking some time to discuss why the economic retail model found in most big box stores (as opposed to its usual architectural manifestation) doesn't have to be in contention with a positive urbanism.

This sort of investigation, which focuses on yet-to-be-built retail centers, is at least as important as investigation of out-of-work boxes. Big box retail corridors are still popular, successful, and increasing in number - especially outside of the United States. Beyond the reality of their still-primary position in much of exurban America, there is a persuasive argument for their increased inclusion in dense, urban environments as well, as was noted yesterday by Matt Yglesias:

"As far as this issue goes, I think urbanists ought to wholeheartedly embrace "big box" chain stores. When there's a problem with an urban-situated big box store, which there often is, it's because (like the Home Depot near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station) the site has been laid out in a way that's inappropriate for an urban environment. But such inappropriate structures are hardly unique to big box retailers (the CVS at 7th and Florida has a strongly suburbanist design quality) or to national chains. What's more, these problems are often caused by misguided regulations (which of course should be fixed, but are not the fault of the big box chains) or else relate to a general lack of experience financing and constructing stores in an urban environment.

But you can make a physical structure, like DC USA in Columbia Heights, that works in an urban environment. And it would work even better if it didn't have so much shopping.

But the bottom line is that successful chains are successful because they're good at bringing to market products that people want to buy at the offered price. If you want people to live and shop in cities, you need to open the cities to the firms that are good at bringing to market products that people want to buy at the offered price."

Echoing Yglesias' argument, there is a serious need for architects to (pardon the pun) think outside of the box - though I would go further, and contend that the box is ill-suited for not only urban situations, but suburban conditions as well. Its failing is less a function of some inefficiency at exchanging goods, than it is a colossal missed opportunity to create a vibrant public space.

Koolhaas and the Harvard Project on the City published a study in Mutations arguing shopping is the last mode of public interaction:

"Shopping is arguably the last remaining form of public activity. Through a battery of increasingly predatory forms, shopping has been able to colonize - even replace - almost every aspect of urban life. Historical town centers. Suburbs, streets, and now train stations, museums, hospitals, schools, the internet, and even the military, are increasingly shaped by the mechanisms and spaces of shopping. Churches are mimicking shopping malls to attract followers. Airports have become wildly popular by converting travelers into customers. Museums are turning to shopping to survive. The traditional European city once tried to resist shopping, but is now a vehicle for American-style consumerism. "High" architects disdain the world of retailing yet use shopping configurations to design museums and universities. Ailing cities are revitalized by being planned more like malls."

The challenge, then, is to take advantage of the popularity of the big box in such a way as to minimize the manifold problems caused by big box developments, issues like water runoff, asphalt heat sinks, energy use, etc; while fostering engaging, flexible public arenas. The Flip-A-Strip competition cited by Rob in his earlier post is a good example of movement in this direction.

Another study that examines the potential for the re-imagination of the big box is 'Flatspace' (published here and here), by Lateral Architecture:

Lateral Architecture, from their website.

Lateral Architecture analyzed 'retail corridors', the urban conditions cropping up outside urban and suburban communities which are defined by "highways and paved planes...dominated by big boxes and retail power centers, conflating an ever-evolving consumer culture with public space." From their description, "The potential for design in flatspace is less about inserting a foreign program or form and more about positing that the system can recalibrate existing elements and agitate encounters of the public without altering its capitalist dependency on efficiency and geo-economics." The existing elements (which they termed filters) they recalibrated were program, parking and landscape; three proposals for each filter were developed.

Lateral Architecture, from Young Architects 7 (link above)

What is compelling about this project is that it investigated the logic of the systems as-is, looking at the relationship between the three filters according to how people interact with them. A litany of alternatives was then developed, each a proposition with the potential to reestablish the nature of the retail corridor and its role as commercial center and public space through a novel reconsideration of the nature of the existing elements.

Lateral Architecture, from their website.

A second point of interest regarding this investigation is that it demonstrates an application of what might be termed as 'infrastructural thinking' - that is, considering the ways in which systems not usually thought of as infrastructure - such as x - function in an essentially infrastructural way in the urban system. Two of the three filters, parking and landscape are infrastructure, and all three were considered infrastructurally, although this is not how Lateral Architecture framed their research. All three filters are private initiatives by corporations, typically considered only insofar as they may generate profits. These infrastructural filters combine to create a larger infrastructure which produces profits for these companies, and distributes goods to consumers. Even in the current big-box condition, they have effectively created public space. The Flatspace investigation demonstrates how a re-calibration of smaller infrastructures (the filters) might serve to increase public interaction and involvement. It takes advantage of an existing trend , and develops it according to an infrastructural analysis.

Obviously, similar studies situated in an urban condition would differ in several important ways; requiring the inclusion of housing, more restricted land use, having a built-in pedestrian population, etc. But, much like Lukez's work, it also hints at how the suburban and urban evolve toward each other - helping us to imagine a situation in which these retail corridors are no longer considered in isolation, but instead are absorbed into the logic of the [sub]urban condition. Instead of the evolution from city to mall Koolhaas observes, retail and city birth a third condition. The evolution of the big box store is no longer an isolated story, but merely a piece of the continuing emergence of the 21st century city. Some student work has begun to explode these novel urbanities, such as the following project by former Princeton M.arch student Christopher Leong:

"This thesis proposes a way to combine the typologies of the mat building and the tower-in-the-park in order to generate a new urban condition that embraces the logics of the dispersed city... By sampling different conditions (housing, shopping, office, agriculture, recreation, wetlands, etc.) within the region, remapping those conditions over a half mile square site, and then layering those patterns into a new inhabitable ground it is possible to create a more cohesive system of inhabitation."

Leong 1.jpg

Leong 2.jpg
image: Christopher Leong, Princeton University S.O.A. Masters Thesis spring 2006

If anything, more questions are raised by these kinds of projects than are answered: How do they come to be? Can zoning ever effect a development such as this, or must it be engendered by mega-developers? Does it need to be built all at once, creating island community systems linked together by larger, city-wide infrastructure, or does it spread like mold, internalizing existing infrastructures, to become a city itself? Does the home loan crisis present Wal-mart with a golden opportunity to buy up vast quantities of housing and suburban acreage, extending its monopoly beyond the things we bring into our homes, toward our homes and streets and cities as well?

October 8, 2008

the minor landscape of glouster, oh

cartogram of county-by-county 2004 presidential election results, by Gastner, Shalizi, and Newman (U-Michigan)

BLDGBLOG posted yesterday on what he termed "the geography of american political campaigns" (see above for said geography), which turns out to be a fascinating topic:

I read that President Bush had stopped off this morning to speak about the credit crisis "with consumers and business people at Olmos Pharmacy, an old-fashioned soda shop and lunch counter" in San Antonio, Texas. The idea here - the spatial implication - is that Bush has somehow stopped off in a landscape of down-home American democracy. This is everyday life, we're meant to believe - a geographic stand-in for the true heart and center of the United States. But it increasingly feels to me that presidential politics now deliberately take place in a landscape that the modern world has left behind. It's a landscape of nostalgia, the golden age in landscape form: Joe Biden visits Pam's Pancakes outside Pittsburgh, Bush visits a soda shop, Sarah Palin watches ice hockey in a town that doesn't have cell phone coverage, Obama goes to a tractor pull. It's as if presidential campaigns and their pursuing tagcloud of media pundits are actually a kind of landscape detection society - a rival Center for Land Use Interpretation - seeking out obsolete spatial versions of the United States, outdated geographies most of us no longer live within or encounter. They find small towns that, by definition, are under-populated and thus unrepresentative of the United States as a whole; they find "old-fashioned" restaurants that seem on the verge of closing for lack of interested customers; they tour "Main Streets" that lost their inhabitants and their businesses long ago. All along they pretend that these landscapes are politically relevant.

What is fascinating here is the notion that political culture is responsible for or complicit in constructing an imaginary landscape -- "landscapes of nostalgia" -- which then become the terrain on which the political campaign is acted out. The question implied here though, by the two possiblities of responsiblity and complicity, is interesting. Surely this insight isn't one that has eluded the politicians -- surely they are aware that they are playing a game, campaigning in an imagined terrain. So there are two possibilites: either voters are being willfully deceived about the nature of modern america or they are willfully complicit in sustaining an illusion - because they WANT to participate in that illusion, or because something about that illusion is attractive to them. I think it's more of the latter than the former -- the comments on BLDGBLOG get a bit into why this might be so (references to the Jeffersonian ideal, etc.) and I might add that there could be very positive goods -- real goods -- contained within the construction, which people may rightly desire (a sense of community and place, an imagined social equilibrium, etc.).

BLDGBLOG finishes the post by arguing that, if the landscape history of a candidate is understood to be an essential part of a candidacy, but the nostalgic landscape is illusory, then perhaps what contemporary America needs are urban candidates (urban being understood not along the exurban-suburban-urban scale but in the juxtaposition between urban and rural, where exurban and suburban are part of urban because they are within the system of networks that compose urban areas).

I don't disagree with this conclusion (in fact, I think I endorse it), but I think that, without denying the fact that the urban, suburban, and exurban landscapes are all more 'representative' of demographic reality, we can also acknowledge that the people living in rural America (and the crumbling smaller cities embedded in rural America) have a real and valid complaint when they worry that they are being forgotten and left behind. (This can be acknowledged, I think, without making a judgment about whether that leaving behind can and should be fought, and, if so, how) I made a similar argument in my thesis project in explaining why I thought the study of small cities in Virginia -- Lynchburg, Staunton, Waynesboro, Winchester -- contributed to the understanding of a facet of urbanism that is rarely studied. Without getting into that argument (in part because I think it is self-evident), I will skip to my conclusion, which is that understanding these forgotten places is key to knowing what to do with, for, and about them.

Glouster, OH (Google Maps)

To that end (achieving understanding), I point out this superb piece of reporting by George Packer in the New Yorker, which focuses on southeastern Ohio. Excerpt:

"Glouster, a coal-mining town with a population of fewer than two thousand (and falling), lies hidden amid the gentle slopes and thick woods of southeastern Ohio's Appalachian hills. If the state is dying, Glouster was long ago left for dead. Over the past few decades, it has lost its Baptist church, grocery store, railroad depot, parking meters, four car dealerships, ten of its dozen bars, and--crucially--all but one of its deep mines. It's become the kind of town where several generations of white families live on welfare, and marijuana is the local cash crop. I was given a tour by Bob Cotter, who is seventy-four, and Pete Morris, seventy-one, both retired from the post office. We walked in a warm drizzle along Main Street, which was nearly deserted, with a few parked cars and no pedestrians. Half the storefronts were shuttered, although a local citizens' group had arranged hand-painted furniture and traditional quilts in the show windows of some of the vacant stores. It looked as if nothing had been built since the fifties. In the middle of town stood a prominent three-story brick building with the words "Sam & Ellen's Wonder Bar--Home of the 'Wonder Dog' " painted across an exposed side. Morris had once owned the bar before selling it to his cousin, in 1971; now it was boarded up. Farther down the street, a hotel, a restaurant, and a two-lane bowling alley had been demolished, leaving a weed-strewn lot.


Dave Herbert was a stocky, talkative building contractor in an Ohio State athletic jersey. At thirty-eight, he considerably lowered the average age in Bonnie's. "I'm self-employed," he said. "I can't afford to be a Democrat." Herbert was a devoted viewer of Fox News and talked in fluent sound bites about McCain's post-Convention "bounce" and Sarah Palin's "executive experience." At one point, he had doubted that Obama stood a chance in Glouster. "From Bob and Pete's generation there are a lot of racists--not out-and-out, but I thought there was so much racism here that Obama'd never win." Then he heard a man who freely used the " 'n' word" declare his support for Obama: "That blew my theory out of the water."

Extra credit here, as Ross Douthat talks about Packer's article and his/Reihan Salam's book Grand New Party, giving some suggestions about what to do with places like Glouster.

April 8, 2008

This is a long drive for someone with nothing to think about

Something that fascinates me is the willingness of people to endure long commutes in exchange for things like large lots and extra bedrooms. But usually long commute means "an hour and half" each way; in a New Yorker article from a year or so ago, Nick Paumgarten explores the notion of commuting, beginning with the lifestyles of the truly hardy commuters:

"Last year, Midas, the muffler company, in honor of its fiftieth anniversary, gave an award for America’s longest commute to an engineer at Cisco Systems, in California, who travels three hundred and seventy-two miles—seven hours—a day, from the Sierra foothills to San Jose and back. “It’s actually exhilarating,” the man said of his morning drive. “When I get in, I’m pumped up, ready to go.”"

Evidence suggests, though, that said engineer is a bit atypical:

"Commuting makes people unhappy, or so many studies have shown. Recently, the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger asked nine hundred working women in Texas to rate their daily activities, according to how much they enjoyed them. Commuting came in last. (Sex came in first.) The source of the unhappiness is not so much the commute itself as what it deprives you of. When you are commuting by car, you are not hanging out with the kids, sleeping with your spouse (or anyone else), playing soccer, watching soccer, coaching soccer, arguing about politics, praying in a church, or drinking in a bar. In short, you are not spending time with other people. The two hours or more of leisure time granted by the introduction, in the early twentieth century, of the eight-hour workday are now passed in solitude. You have cup holders for company.

“I was shocked to find how robust a predictor of social isolation commuting is,” Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, told me. (Putnam wrote the best-seller “Bowling Alone,” about the disintegration of American civic life.) “There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.”"

This brings up the commuting paradox:

"Most people travel long distances with the idea that they'll accept the burden for something better, be it a house, salary, or school. They presume the trade-off is worth the agony. But studies show that commuters are on average much less satisfied with their lives than noncommuters. A commuter who travels one hour, one way, would have to make 40% more than his current salary to be as fully satisfied with his life as a noncommuter, say economists Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer of the University of Zurich's Institute for Empirical Research in Economics. People usually overestimate the value of the things they'll obtain by commuting -- more money, more material goods, more prestige -- and underestimate the benefit of what they are losing: social connections, hobbies, and health. "Commuting is a stress that doesn't pay off," says Stutzer."

I can only speak for myself, but I'm quite satisfied with my (pedestrian) commute. If I ever get a bicycle with working brakes and non-eroded gears again, I'll be even more satisfied, as that thirty-minute walk translates to a nice, brief ten-minute bike ride.

[bonus: Sun Kil Moon's cover of Modest Mouse's Dramamine, off of This is a long drive for someone with nothing to think about]

March 6, 2008

Tall buildings will cut you

Interesting stuff on the relationship between urban design and safety, from the Washington Post, via Where:

"Two new-wave economists, Edward Glaeser of Harvard and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth, matched crime figures with data on building height and discovered that the residents of high-rise apartments are much more likely to be victims of crime -- specifically street crime. The effect remains similar after statistically adjusting for poverty, demographics and public housing: It's the height of the building itself that matters."

So maybe that's not quite as fascinating as the notion that inhaling architecture can alter your mental state, but its still a pretty interesting observation. Certainly agrees with my intuitive preference for low-rise urban environments (which, contrary to what the Ground Floor suggests, are quite capable of supporting vibrant, walkable commercial life -- souk, anyone?).

February 26, 2008

mommy, there's a crack house in the our cul-de-sac

Those who have been gleefully awaiting the decline and fall of america's suburban empire received a delightful treat in the March issue of the Atlantic Monthly:

"At Windy Ridge, a recently built starter-home development seven miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina, 81 of the community’s 132 small, vinyl-sided houses were in foreclosure as of late last year. Vandals have kicked in doors and stripped the copper wire from vacant houses; drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in. In December, after a stray bullet blasted through her son’s bedroom and into her own, Laurie Talbot, who’d moved to Windy Ridge from New York in 2005, told The Charlotte Observer, “I thought I’d bought a home in Pleasantville. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that stuff like this would happen.”"

[the windy ridge subdivision, via google]

Towards the end of the article, Leinberger engages in a bit of interesting speculation about the future of these homes:

"As conventional suburban lifestyles fall out of fashion and walkable urban alternatives proliferate, what will happen to obsolete large-lot houses? One might imagine culs-de-sac being converted to faux Main Streets, or McMansion developments being bulldozed and reforested or turned into parks. But these sorts of transformations are likely to be rare. Suburbia’s many small parcels of land, held by different owners with different motivations, make the purchase of whole neighborhoods almost unheard-of. Condemnation of single-family housing for “higher and better use” is politically difficult, and in most states it has become almost legally impossible in recent years. In any case, the infrastructure supporting large-lot suburban residential areas—roads, sewer and water lines—cannot support the dense development that urbanization would require, and is not easy to upgrade. Once large-lot, suburban residential landscapes are built, they are hard to unbuild.

The experience of cities during the 1950s through the ’80s suggests that the fate of many single-family homes on the metropolitan fringes will be resale, at rock-bottom prices, to lower-income families—and in all likelihood, eventual conversion to apartments."

It would be nice if the article had spent a bit more time exploring these burgeoning dystopias (and the reactions of the shocked homeowners) and little less time developing the standard urban planner's argument about suburbs and density (suburbs are bad, density is good, zoning, tax incentives, and nimbyism distort market demand in favor of large lot development, etc.). [Charlotte's newspaper, the Charlotte Observer, has done exactly that here]. I say this not so much because I disagree with those standard arguments (though they're often pushed in an unseemly fashion by Kunstler-types, I think they're essentially correct), but because the process of decay is much more interesting (and at least as important -- people will be living in those rentals, after all). This flickr set of the Detroit public school's (abandoned) book depository provides an ample demonstration of the potential attractiveness of decay. You can read a follow post by the photographer here, in which the photographer notes some of the danger implicit in romanticizing decay.

book depository.jpg
[from sweetjuniper on flickr; link above]

February 5, 2008

azuma house

[this is not a particularly coherent collection of thoughts; there's one in here about incrementality and urbanism, and one about courtyards. the only thing that seems to tie them together is the azuma house.]

the impact of a building, can, i think, be roughly divided into the architectural and the urban (this presumes that one accepts the older, less common understanding of 'urbanism' as the study of the summed effects of human settlement). both of these categories can be subdivided (the architectural impacts, in particular, rapidly break down into beauty, meaning, and function).

within a city, scale is one of the most important urban properties of a building. while i would not say that smaller is always better, i do think that a general principle of incrementality can be extracted from the histories of beautiful cities. that is, the quality of a place within a city is improved if growth and building occurs incrementally, and decreased when rapid demolition and construction erase the traces of time, ownership, and decay.

at some point, hopefully i'll explain that a bit better; however, i wanted to say something about incrementality while looking at tadao ando's azuma house, because i think that the azuma house is a great example of an incremental addition in a style of architecture (nearly brutalist) not exactly known for its sensitive urbanism.

[azuma house from street]

the interior courtyard is an architectural pattern that anglos aren't typically likely to construct (admittedly, in part due to climate), but i think this is a great misfortune. ando employs the courtyard to great effect as a light well in the azuma house, but there is something to be said for the inconvenience of passing through the courtyard from room to room of the house, as well (i'm suspicious of the inflated value convenience is assigned in american culture).

[azuma house courtyard]

all pictures are from this website. this entry triggered by archidose's literary dose on ando and azuma. ando makes an excellent point as he explains why he considers the interior courtyard a burden worth bearing:

From a functional viewpoint, the courtyard of the Rowhouse in Sumiyoshi forces the inhabitant to endure the occasional hardships. At the same time, however, the open courtyard is capable of becoming the house's vital organ, introducing the everyday life and assimilating precious stimuli such as changes in nature.

[azuma house courtyard after rain]

this proposal (in flash) for adding lighting to the azuma house also incidentally helps in understanding the house's spatial relationships.

January 18, 2008

alternate atlantas

Surprisingly enough (give the generally flat-lined condition of the city's urbanism), there are a few interesting urban happenings going on right about now in, regarding or around Atlanta (where I presently do not reside).

[from Willa's Wonderland]

.1 A number of them are collated under the title "re/constructing atlanta", "a synchronistic network of exhibitions and events that examines the real and imagined nexus of art, architecture and urban design." The projects gathered under this rubric seem to be mostly concerned with various aspects of the Beltline project.

One project that stands out is Unbuilt Atlanta; speculative architecture is typically great fun, so one hopes that there were some invigorating visions on display (the projects were on display back in September, I believe -- perhaps they're still on display somewhere). This review of the exhibit notes that Martha Schwartz once proposed a ring of golf courses surrounding the city; I suppose that would be the urban-scale equivalent of a bagel garden, but I'm not sure that makes it a good idea.

The most intriguing project, though, is probably Willa's Wonderland, which nicely blurs the distinction between comic book and (speculative) architecture. The architects describe the lead character, Willa:

"...a precocious eleven-year old. Through her journey around the Beltline she comes to understand the vital importance of building a dream with vision and wisdom. Her travel includes both progress and pause, led by the characters and places she encounters along the way. Her observation of noble Institutions should guide us in projecting a new and nurturing future for Atlanta. In 2039, Willa will become Mayor of the City and her childhood experience will shape her leadership."

The narrative works with a sort of dream logic, passing through various moments arranged along the Beltline, from the botanical arcade [above] to sound field [below].


.2 Also of interest might be the History Channel's "City of the Future" design challenge, which is located in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Washington (DC) this year. The contestants in Atlanta maybe aren't quite as interesting as those in DC or San Francisco (and I think we can safely say that, in DC at least, one of the more prosaic visions was chosen).

[entry by University of Maryland team at DC event]

August 6, 2007

Rice Art


This year's rice crop in Inakadate, Japan (featuring yellow, purple, and green-leaved varieties of rice).

If you're thinking it might be photoshopped, enjoy this series of photos of the paddies over time, from the town's website, and this close-up:


Via Agricultural Biodiversity.

June 2, 2007

Envisioning Gateway Competition

Winners of the Van Alen Institute's Envisioning Gateway competition to be announced Monday... more on this later perhaps (there should be some exciting entries, if previous VAI competitions provide any indication).

Heliostats and Turbines

Meant to put a note up about this earlier...

[image: flickr user G.Muleey]

The new solar-thermal power plant outside Seville (Spain). The 377-foot tall (aprox. 40-stories) tower receives the sun's reflected light via 600 networked heliostats, which train enough light onto the tower to convert enough water into steam to power enough turbines to generate 11 megawatts of electricity -- not a terribly impressive amount at the moment, though it is enough to power 6000 homes. However, the plant is eventually expected to generate enough power to provide the electricity demanded by the entire city of Seville (quite a bit of power). Oh, and isn't it gorgeous?

[image: bbc]

Read more at the BBC; link via FreeSoil.

May 21, 2007

The Mayor is an Architect

[image from flickr user pleasurejunkie]

The Times Sunday Magazine spotlights the Brazilian city of Curitiba and its ex-mayor/architect/planner Jaime Lerner this week:

In the early 1970s, when Brazil was welcoming any industry, no matter how toxic its byproducts, Curitiba decided to admit only nonpolluters; to accommodate them, it constructed an industrial district that reserved so much land for green space that it was derided as a “golf course” until it succeeded in filling up with major businesses while its counterparts in other Latin American cities were flagging. Through the creation of two dozen recreational parks, many with lakes to catch runoff in low-lying areas that flood periodically, Curitiba managed, at a time of explosive population growth, to increase its green areas from 5 square feet per inhabitant to an astounding 560 square feet. The city promoted “green” policies before they were fashionable and called itself “the ecological capital of Brazil” in the 1980s, when there were no rivals for such a title. Today, Curitiba remains a pilgrimage destination for urbanists fascinated by its bus system, garbage-recycling program and network of parks. It is the answer to what might otherwise be a hypothetical question: How would cities look if urban planners, not politicians, took control?

The city is probably best known for its decision to build an extensive express-bus system rather than a subway or light rail system.


And, of course, the bus system map (which by its graphic qualities alone makes it quite clear that the bus system is a substitute for a rail system):


One issue that I wish the Times had gotten to is that of expansion versus reuse -- elsewhere I've seen it suggested that Lerner aimed for reuse over expansion, but in a city where the population has grown from under half a million in the sixties to over three million in the metropolitan area today, reuse can't be the sole direction (unfortunately, as reuse is nearly always more interesting...)

April 25, 2007

Solar Symphonies and Extraterrestial Landscapes

Some interesting (you might even say stellar) things being discovered by telescopes these days.

1. It appears that the sun's atmosphere produces music:

...explosive events at the Sun’s surface appear to trigger acoustic waves that bounce back and forth between both ends of the loops, a phenomenon known as a standing wave.

“These magnetic loops are analogous to a simple guitar string,” von Fay-Siebenburgen explained. “If you pluck a guitar string, you will hear the music.”

In the cosmic equivalent of a guitar pick, so-called microflares at the base of loops could be plucking the magnetic loops and setting the sound waves in motion, the researchers speculate.

solar flare.jpg
[image from as well]

If musical landscapes or astronomic architecture interest you, you might want to (a) start reading BLDGBLOG and (b) click on these links for singing Antarctic geology or a heliocentric interpretation of the Parthenon.

2. New Planet could be earth-like.
Well, that's promising, isn't it?

The most enticing property yet found outside our solar system is about 20 light-years away in the constellation Libra, a team of European astronomers said yesterday.

The astronomers have discovered a planet five times as massive as the Earth orbiting a dim red star known as Gliese 581.

It is the smallest of the 200 or so planets that are known to exist outside of our solar system, the extrasolar or exo-planets. It orbits its home star within the so-called habitable zone where surface water, the staff of life, could exist if other conditions are right, said Stephane Udry of the Geneva Observatory.
-NY Times

While discovering planets in other solar systems is nice, so are the objects that we use to look for them. For instance, the European Southern Observatory in Chile, where the Gliese 581 planet was spotted:

[image from onera's website]

For a nice set of shots of the ESO, check out this flickr set. I wonder if you can take a vacation to a radioastronomy observatory?

April 21, 2007

April 18, 2007

Not in My Backyard Produces In Your Cornfield

[image from slate]

If Witold's previous books are any indication, Last Harvest should be a good read (for those of us inclined to read a history residential real-estate development before bed). Slate has a couple of excerpts up (one on why Americans live in single family homes, one on the rise and fall of the ranch house) including a decent slideshow following the transformation of a Chester County cornfield into an ex-urban subdivision.

[image from slate]

With the above image, I was hoping that the slideshow might take a more interesting turn than it did, perhaps examining the reasons that developers/engineers feel compelled to erase a site before working with it (and hopefully the impact of those decisions). Or why standard home plans can't be developed that show a bit more willingness to accomodate themselves to their eventual sites (you could imagine a future home buyer choosing between the simple, two-level 5% slope model and the multi-tiered maze that is the 23% slope model).

Not to worry, though. I'm sure that the subdivision will make a fascinating folly for some future landscape architect:

[image from habs]

April 11, 2007

the lair of a wicked fairytale character

This Russian ex-con, by the name of Nikolai Sutyagin, has built what is apparently the world's tallest wooden house (13 floors and 144 feet). Sutyagin describes it as a "happy accident", which sounds about right to me:

[image via the telegraph, link above]

The neighbors want to have it torn down, calling it a "monstrosity" and a fire-hazard. I think those neighbors need a dose of Miyazaki.

[Picked up at BLDGBLOG; here's google maps link to the city of Arkhangelsk]

February 17, 2007

Feng Shui

Regular readers of excellent interplaces such as BLDGBLOG or things magazine are probably already acquainted with this piece of news/land art:

green rocks 1.jpg
[image source=reuters]

Who would have thought that the Chinese government would take up Smithson's mantle?

October 31, 2006

Flight 93 Memorials

I wouldn't say that the winning design is bad. And though I think the reason they changed the shape of the red maple allee was silly (it was changed because people thought the crescent shape looked like the Islamic crescent), I do prefer the newer shape.

However, the winner has been discussed quite a bit already; what interests me are the losers. My favorite is "Fields, Forests, Fences" (link is to a rather large image, but its worth the wait), entered by Laurel McSherry and Terry Surjan:

flight 93 fff 1.jpg

The title refers to the basic elements of the entry: (1) fields consisting of open meadows, fields in early succession, and freshwater wetlands; (2) forests of a birch grove on the sacred ground, stands of hemlock, young woodlands dominated by red maples, sassafras, spice bush, witch hazel, and also older, mature forests with hemlock and mixed hardwoods; (3) fences consisting of monuments marking the names, hometowns, and birthdates of the Flight 93 passengers and crew, cast urns made by local craftsmen, scattered through the debris fields, and filled with rendered hemlock mulch, and a memorial fence that stands above the Sacred Ground and birch grove.

Above is the proposed memorial fence, on which visitors to the memorial would hang metal forestry tags, inscribed with messages by those visitors. This would have been one of several ways in which the site would constantly fluid, where design consists more of setting up a process or set of rules than a specific form. The winning design is obviously an example of the other sort of design (form specification), which is the traditional mode of landscape architecture.

I am not sure whether the newer mode has a name or not, but I think it would probably be most closely identified with ecological thinking:

"If the related notions of bounded sites and bounded bodies ceased to function as useful concepts because of a theoretical emphasis on the open nature of systems in space, then new conceptions of demarcation in space would be more dependent on the density (and intensity) of biological interactions that occur over time. Adopting that basis for demarcation and delineation would require a major shift in thinking for design theorists, who have relied heavily on geographic dimensions as their primary means of recognizing and reproducing important relationships."
- Kristina Hill, "Shifting Sites" (in Site Matters)

Anyways, here are the other finalists (all of which I think are probably superior to the winning design):

flight 93 2.jpg
DISTURBED HARMONY (the links with these are to the competition boards, which are large like the McSherry/Surjan one above) - Leor and Gilat Lovinger, with Office of Lawrence Halprin, San Francisco, California

Flight 3.jpg
(F)LIGHT - Ken Lum with Dennis Fanti, Yvonne Lam and Ivan Ilic, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

flight 4.jpg
MEMORY TRAIL - Jason Kentner, Karen Lewis, E. Lynn Miller, and Frederick Steiner. Austin,Texas

October 27, 2006

Wormwood Forest


I stumbled across some more information on the Chernobyl graffiti today. Apparently, you can take a tour of Chernobyl (it is described as "ecological/extreme tourism"), which is how the graffiti artists (who I now see described as "twentysomething Belarusians and Germans") gained entry into Chernobyl. I like the silhouettes best, such as this one. However, I suppose I should note that the author of Wormwood Forest does not think much of the graffiti-makers.

October 20, 2006

Strange Soviet Architecture with bonus Crazy Frenchmen in Chernobyl


Click here for an interview with the photographer, Frederic Chaubin. Some of these buildings are stunning, though the first one is my favorite.

If that's not enough Soviet-strangeness for you, perhaps you would enjoy this collection of photographs of Chernobyl. I found a couple of things particularly interesting.

chernobyl 1.jpg

The story that English Russia provides is that a crazed French artist visited Chernobyl and made these surreal paintings on buildings. I suppose its certainly possible.

chernobyl 2.jpg

The city is being eaten by the forest. I think someone wrote a book on this (Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl).

October 6, 2006

The Shortsighted Architecture of Covenant College

Josiah links to the new website for the Covenant capital campaign, which contains a couple of renderings of the proposed new residence hall, academic building, and 'campus green'.

I have to say that my initial reaction is 'ick'. 'Ick' not as in Founders, which is an ugly building with considerable charm (the way that the second floor meets the ground level with the overhanging entrance, for instance), but 'ick' as in Maclellan, which is a competent structure that entirely lacks any sort of compelling architecture. Architecture by engineers, if you will (but not the good sort of architecture by engineers).

The ick is compounded by what seems to me to be the tragic wastefulness of placing such dull architecture in such a beautiful site, as illustrated well, I think, by this shot from the front of the campaign website:


Why would you build buildings in such a wonderful place which have no relationship to the place? Carter has relationship, if only by default, in that it has been a presence on the mountain for so long that I have never seen an image of Lookout that predates the hotel. And I think the shape of the tower, rising from the north end of the building, nicely echoes the form of the land itself, where the peak of Lookout Mountain rises from a ridge that extends south far past Cloudland Canyon.

The chapel also has relationship and is definitely the second best building on the campus. I suggest that the art barn is the third best, followed perhaps by Founders. All three of those evidence at least some sort of relationship to place, something that indicates that they belong here, not there. I am prepared to defend those statements, but I won't bother unless challenged.

The newer buildings do nothing of the sort, and I am sad to see that the College seems intent on continuing this trend of mediocre architecture. It's a shame when you consider it in comparison to previous Presbyterian architecture, like Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia. (I don't mean to suggest that new construction should look like Tenth Presbyterian, or any other historic structure; only to reference the tradition of architecture in the church.) One of the long-standing assertions of the architectural disciplines (and I include landscape in that) is that architecture has meaning; that it says something about the people who make it, what was valuable to them, what they thought of the future. The sort of architecture that the college is engaged in now is essentially a denial of both the future and the past, in that it both disregards a history of architectural thought and evidences little concern about the future of a place.

One last word, on the campus green. I absolutely cannot stand it, for two reasons. First, because it wipes out a perfectly functional space (Carter Circle), which has long stood in my memory as one of the defining places of Covenant. It does so in order to replace it with... what? A nebulous and poorly defined representation of a "green"? I assume that this is some sort of reference to the old American tradition of the rectangular open space at the center of a campus, such as the lawn found at the University of Virginia or the Harvard Quadrangle. However, it should be obvious from those images (as well as the previous one of the new Academic building) that the plan for the Covenant campus green is an ill-considered imitation (like the way Western towns used to put up fake fronts on stores by the railroad line, but without the charm that implies). The space at Covenant which functions as the central open space is the lawn between Mills and the chapel; were a campus green a good idea, I think it would obviously belong there.

Second, I object to the very idea of imposing a northeastern university ideal on a building built on top of a mountain in the heart of the south; if you look at the drawings of the green, you will note that do not consider in the slightest the fact that Covenant is located in an extremely unique site. I'm not sure what the proper landscape of the college is; however, I am rather certain that an idea which is entirely suitable for flat landscapes in New England is ill-suited to Lookout Mountain in Tennessee.

September 12, 2006

Squeeze Study

Alexandria National Cemetery and Ivy Hill Cemetery (Alexandria, VA)
WAAC Veteran's Cemetery Studio, Fall 2006

September 8, 2006

Remembering Henry H. Bliss

It is humorous to me that people tend to be afraid of activities such as flying or riding a bike while regarding automobile travel as perfectly safe. I think perhaps part of the reason that we tend to forget about the dangers of car travel is that we don't commemorate Henry H. Bliss's death as a nation. I think it would be a perfectly appropriate thing to have a Henry H. Bliss day on September 13th every year. If I have time, I think I may start a Henry H. Bliss Day campaign. Is anyone with me?

Oh yes. Who is Henry H. Bliss? "On September [13th], 1899, as he was stepping off a streetcar [please note that a streetcar is a railcar, not a motorcar] at 74th Street and Central Park West in New York, Henry H. Bliss was struck and killed by a motor vehicle, thus becoming the first fatality in the long war between flesh and steel." So that is who Henry H. Bliss is (Also note that Henry was only the first car traffic fatality in the Western Hemisphere, as the scientist Mary Ward was the first person in the world to be killed by a motor vehicle).

Let us continue the story. "Thereafter, the carnage increased almost annually until Americans were sustaining about 50,000 traffic deaths and about 2 million nonfatal injuries a year". Let us put these numbers in a bit of perspective. "It was as if a Pearl Harbor attack took place on the highways every two weeks, with crashes becoming so commonplace that an entire industry sprang up to provide medical, legal, and insurance services for the victims."

Please note that I am not suggesting that everything about the automobile is horrible, though I do hold a generally more critical view of its place in society than most, I think. For instance, transportation pollution used to mean manure; by the end of the 19th century, some 2.5 million TONS of horse manure were estimated to be falling into New York City's streets every day.

Well, anyways, back to Henry. It seems that the city of New York erected a small plaque to commemorate him in 1999 on the 100th year since his death. You can see the plaque here.

June 21, 2006

Frank Gehry in Brooklyn

Let me preface this entry by saying that, although I'm not always the biggest fan of contemporary architecture, I'm not exactly Kunstler, either (I prefer to think that I fall somewhere around where Witold Rybczynski, of my favorite writers on architecture and the city does). So when I tell you that I think Frank Gehry's big new project in Brooklyn (which he has referred to, rather aptly, as his "ego trip") is the architectural equivalent of shock and awe, I hope you will understand that its not Gehry's style (as a whole) that I object to (in fact, I rather like some of his work, which I find considerably less contrived than some of the other starchitects, like Calatrava). Rather, it is the fact that he has wholly ignored the factors of scale and presentation at street level with the proposal. These two pictures from an excellent Slate sideshow (and article) on the topic pretty much tell the whole story:

minus gehry.jpg
Minus Gehry

minus gehry.jpg
Plus Gehry

As a side note, I had been meaning to comment over on Ryan's post "New Urban Environs", but never got around to it (world cup and all that). I will stop and take this moment to say that, fake and irritating as the New-Urbanist-lite "lifestyle centers" and "shopping villages" are, at least they are constructed at a scale that resembles that of human activity (this, I believe, is exactly what Ryan said, so don't think I'm disagreeing with him on this point). On the other hand, you may note that my reasons for disliking Gehry's project are little more than expressions of aesthetic preferences at the moment (though I do believe I could expand upon them to explain why these are preferences that make substantive differences). The previous sentence will seem entirely out of context if you do not read Ryan's post.

April 26, 2006

It probably took someone from outside to point out the obvious

Perhaps you were listening to NPR yesterday and you noticed that Jane Jacobs died. The Times has a nice obituary, which is fitting, because New York City perhaps owes more than any other city (except possibly Toronto) to her personal efforts. If you're not familiar with her, Ms. Jacobs was almost certainly the most controversial figure in urban planning in the 20th century. She challenged many of the sacred cows which had developed in the first half of the century, such as the ideal of the Garden City (i.e. Le Corbusier) and the importance of zoning (she demonstrated rather effectively, I think, that zoning is simply the wrong way to go about urban planning; too bad even urban planners who know her work backwards and forwards all too frequently ignore that advice).

Her four part formula for a successful and diverse city block is so simple, but so nearly impossible to pull off (1. A street or district must serve several primary functions. 2. Blocks must be short. 3. Buildings must vary in age, condition, use and rentals. 4. Population must be dense.). Numbers 1 and 3 seem to be the hardest ones to fulfill these days, although I'd say we're getting better with number 1, at least in some municipalities (the Rosslyn-Clarendon-Ballston corridor in Arlington, for example). Number 3, though, is virtually impossible to fulfill in today's building world, where developers tear down entire city blocks to erect new buildings. The problem, of course, is that its just not efficient to slowly renovate blocks building by building on a city wide scale. I definitely think the importance of #3 is what the new urbanists have missed (although it probably isn't so much that they missed it as that they couldn't think of a way to convince any sane [read: money-loving] developer to implement it).

As a side note, I find it funny that she was considered so liberal (she certainly considered herself liberal), as many of her ideas were simply negations of previous liberal ideas.

April 20, 2006

On Rebuilding New Orleans

A series of worthwhile articles on Slate ("An economist visits New Orleans"). Probably the best of the articles is Wednesday's entry on migrant workers (illegal and legal, or I would have no compunction about calling them illegal migrants, despite my rather moderate views on what to do about illegal immigration). The author gets major points for slamming Mayor Ray Nagin ("In October, Mayor Ray Nagin asked, 'How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?' The answer: Do not rebuild."). I wanted to punch Ray in the face when suggested last fall that New Orleans didn't have a place for Latinos; it was quite possibly the most ignorant statement I'd heard in a long time (and as someone who frequently listens to News and Notes on NPR, I hear a lot of ignorant opinions).

The entry I found most interesting, though, was the entry on housing, regulation, and rebuilding, in which the author suggests that government should essentially step aside and permit the market to determine what sort of housing and what quality of housing would be built in New Orleans, with the expected effect being that the housing would be of a lower quality than codes typically allow. This particular type of deregulation in construction is not something that I've thought about (or am particularly qualified to consider), but I do think that I've generally been coming gradually around to the viewpoint that government regulation is largely responsible for the degradation of the quality of the built environment since the Second World War. The regulations I refer to are zoning codes in particular, which have essentially made it illegal to build the places that contain a vibrant mix of uses and values, which Jane Jacobs readers will know are the essential ingredients in a safe and desirable city, large or small (Old Town Alexandria, where I live, is one such place). (I suppose the other major problem has been the rise of the practice of developing massive tracts of land at once by one owner, but that's been going on since the turn of the century and I don't see any realistic way to prevent that; what I would like to make possible is the alternative, which is organic growth and development by invested land owners -- which I suppose brings up yet another problem, that the middle class is now so detached from the land that it occupies that it has little interest in building or maintaining anything that would be worth keeping for longer than the lifespan of a single job).

March 6, 2006

If I wrote a text on horticulture

How to prune a crepe myrtle: Gently prune the stems back to the ground and then dig up the roots.

Kansas as Art

"Farmers in this region have adopted a more efficient irrigation method, central pivot irrigation, to conserve water from the Ogallala Aquifer. The method draws water from a single well in a field’s center, and uses long pipes perched on wheels that rotate around the pivot, showering the crops with water. Because the water falls directly on the crops instead of being shot into the air as occurs with traditional sprinklers, less water is lost to evaporation and more goes to nourishing the growing plants. The circular field shapes are a byproduct of the method. The fields shown here are up to one mile (1.6 kilometers) in diameter."
From via BLDGBLOG.

[unrelated: Could someone suggest to me how you cause a something in the blockqoute tag to have a different background color than the body text?]

December 21, 2005

Christmas Present Manufactured by Santa Claus or Approved Equal


Download the PDF here.

I have absolutely no idea who originally did this or I would give credit; I found it on gravestmor. So anyways if you spend much time doing construction details you might find this funny. If not, probably not.

December 7, 2005

Rotting Buildings

One of the hot debates in historic preservation (What? You doubt the heat?) these days centers around the question of when a historic site or building has reached a point at which we can say "Stop! It should be preserved exactly as it is." The question is made quite tricky for a number of reasons, such as the historic evidence we have of sites which were vastly improved through changes made decades or even centuries after the original site was completed (see the Piazza San Marco in Venice). Another sticky point is the possibility that some sites should not be preserved at all, as discussed in this interesting article from Slate, "Rot in Peace" (the point of this entry is that you should read this article). I certainly don't have the same degree of sympathy she esposes for Camilo José Vergara's ideas for the center of Detroit (which I think are ridiculous and awful), but she makes some interesting points (and pictures are worth seeing).