Entomological Urban Design
I used to go on walking tours of San Francisco with one of my grad school professors, Peter Bosselmann. We would walk around neighborhoods and he would occasionally stop, point to a building, and ask, "How old do we think this building is, hm?" It was always the architecture students who would answer first, knowing which dates were associated with Edwardian or Victorian design. I always thought it was an interesting skill, to be able to read the age of a neighborhood by looking around, like reading the rings on a tree or carbon dating.
So then last night I was talking to a friend of mine who grew up in DC. He was recounting the last cicada infestation 17 years ago, how disgusting and overwhelming it was. He still has family back there, and they tell him that the infestation is particularly bad in older neighborhoods. The newer neighborhoods that have been constructed or renovated within the last 17 years have less bugs - the soil has been moved around and the cicada eggss don't survive the turmoil. This means we have a new dating science. There's carbon dating, dating by architectural style, and now bug dating.


Rules of Thumb
I have an acquaintance with whom I disagree on virtually everything urban design related. I respect him and hear his opinion, but we are such different people that it seems we are always viewing new projects and coming to opposite conclusions. It is then that, in attempts to prove the validity of our opinions, we start wading into the lingo. "It's out of context. It turns its back on its neighbors" he says. "It lacks walkability," he says. Sometimes I counter, lobbing lingo right back at him, but he's better with the fancy talk than I am, and most often I walk away merely shaking my head.
I'm thinking about this because as I was reading John King's article in the Chron this morning, I saw the picture of the new Selfridge's department store in Birmingham, England. It's an insane building, and I love it. But it breaks every urban design rule in the book. It's a superblock, occupying an entire city block, so it spits in the face of pedestrian walkability and human scaled development. It has very few windows, so forget getting high marks on transparency (the ability of people outside the building to see what is going on inside, and vice versa). It even offers pedestrian skyways, pulling pedestrians off the street and ceding the ground level right-of-ways to the automobiles (horrors!). And finally, the only way it which it responds to the architecture that surrounds it is to be as different as possible. Let's just say it almost certainly doesn't appear in any of Christopher Alexander's tomes on good, user-friendly urban design.
So I saw this picture and knew - knew - that my friend must hate it. And I sat there on the bus imagining the argument we would have about it, descending rapidly into lingo tossing (which sounds like midget tossing but, sadly, is nothing like it). And then I had a bit of an epiphany: urban design lingo is a crock of shit.

OK. I went too far there. I wanted to get your attention. I should restate it. I should have said it like this: the concepts are valid; we, however, are full of shit when we treat them as inviolable scientific truths. Because they're only rules of thumb, and rules of thumb are hardly written in stone. These principles were created for the most part by Kevin Lynch and Christopher Alexander, who studied people's reactions to their environments and dug through subjective opinions to find nuggets of truth. It's brilliant work, one of those projects that seems so obvious you can't believe you didn't come up with it, but at the same time when pressed to add to it you have no idea where to start - a sure sign of genius. The principles are, obviously, immensely helpful when designing. But - and I've ranted about this before - we use them as intellectual crutches. If we don't like a particular project, we pan it. We refer to any number of urban design tenets that it ignores when in fact the main reason we don't like it is that we think it's ugly. But we don't say that, see, because admitting it's an issue of subjectivity doesn't have the same aura of authority and absoluteness. The Selfridge's made me think of that. A lot of people are going to be up in arms about that building. And when they start their tirade, they'll start with the urban design principles that it ignores and maybe at the end, they'll tack on a quiet, "and also, it's ugly."
What it comes down to, this debating the merits of a project, is two things. First it's an argument over which principles we prioritize for the site. This is different from debating whether the project obeys the principles. Some principles will be followed, others can be ignored. It's a context specific decision made anew each time, not a checklist of mandatory rules. Walkability becomes more important when a project is sited amongst superblocks and highways. Transparency becomes important in areas of crime (it leads to eyes on the street). The second argument is simply about whether we think the project is pretty.
I think what I'm getting at here is that in an attempt to sound authoritative, urban designers are too often using rules of thumb as if they were scientific fact. We are afraid to admit that our opinions are opinions. And that's a dangerous trend, because that means whoever comes up with the latest, most interesting rule of thumb rules the design world.


X-Ray Vision
The NY Times today reviews the proposed plans for the Fulton Street Subway Station, designed by the firm Grimshaw. Unlike most New York stations for underground trains, this one includes an above ground structure, a Crystal-Palace-esque, 110-foot high glass dome atop a 50-foot box.
The bit that grabs my eye is this quote:
From within, the center's design is intended to help wayfinding. For instance, St. Paul's Chapel will be visible from the mezzanine level, greeting arriving riders from seven subway lines. "St. Paul's is a major orientation point," said William Wheeler, the director of special project development and planning at the M.T.A. "When you come in and see the church, there's no mistaking it."

One of my favorite New York experiences is the blast of light, sound, and smells that hit you when you emerge to street level from the subway. Being that I've only been a tourist in New York, the disorientation is, in its own way, wonderful. It's a breathtaking transition from one chaos to another. As an urban designer, I have to imagine that the goal would be to minimize that shock, to assist people in knowing which way they're looking before they emerge from the subway to avoid that ten-second rotational dance of, "Which way is Broadway? Where am I looking?"
But another part of me revels in the contrast of one environment to another. I love the experience of being slapped in the face when entering a new environment. And the brilliance of Grimshaw's solution, I think, is that it aides the traveler without eliminating the shock value. Imagine standing on the mezzanine level of the station, solidly underground, and looking up through two levels through a glass oculus at St. Paul's Cathedral so that by the time you reach the sidewalk you are already pointed in the right direction. Instead of spinning on the sidewalk, your head can spin while you look up.
The whole thing reminds me of an article I read a long time ago about some New York art students who designed a very clever project on the subways. The group drove a car along the streets directly above a subway line and filmed a digital video with a fisheye lens aimed straight upwards. The students then placed a flatscreen TV, facing the floor, on the roof of the subway car and played the video, offering riders a fisheye skylight that seemed to cut through the dirt, pipes, street, and cars above so they could see the buildings on either side of the street they were passing under.
It's the same trick that Grimshaw toys with in their Fulton Street Station: letting riders momentarily put on X-ray goggles and know where they stand relative to the rest of the city. It takes a small amount of mystery out of the subway ride but, in exchange, it empowers the travelers.


Crosswalk Etiquette, Lesson #1
This morning on the way from the Embarcadero BART station down Fremont Street to the Transbay Bus Terminal, I had trouble crossing Mission Street. The trouble can be traced almost solely to a wonderfully sweet looking couple. A loving couple enjoying their commute together. A loving couple spending quality time together by crossing the crosswalk holding hands and standing at least a full body width apart, taking up half the crosswalk.
My instinct was to dodge to the right, but the crosswalk was crowded and there was no room. I looked left: same problem. I even entertained the idea of ducking underneath their arms.
Finally, I realized the appropriate route. I put my arms over my head, stuck my stomach forward as if I were breaking a marathon finish line tape, and said, "Red rover, red rover, send ME right over!" as I marched determinedly right between them, severing their loving hand-connection in two like the cynical, transplanted east-coaster that I am.


Rotting Hulks
Juxtaposing today with history, rotting industrial relics, urbanity, yadda, yadda, yadda. Basically all the things I love are in this article from the Times.
Incidentally, this hereby sets the new standard for informal posting for me. I've been reading too much wonkette lately and it's contagious. Her site is totally unrelated to urban life and whatnot, but I'm addicted to it so I had to plug it.
Thinking and Driving: The Ultimate in Multitasking
Salon.com has a really interesting article (you have to view a one-minute visa advertisement in order to get a free one-day pass to salon.com) on a new transportation planning strategy that encourages thinking and analysis by drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians instead of the mindless herding that is the norm in America today. It's interesting. It hadn't even occurred to me that herding was the norm, but after reading the article it's plain as day that there have to be other options more in line with my personal philosophies.
Key quote:
Reversing decades of conventional wisdom on traffic engineering, Hamilton-Baillie argues that the key to improving both safety and vehicular capacity is to remove traffic lights and other controls, such as stop signs and the white and yellow lines dividing streets into lanes. Without any clear right-of-way, he says, motorists are forced to slow down to safer speeds, make eye contact with pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers, and decide among themselves when it is safe to proceed.


Hidden Treasure
My friend Jon is moving this week and was recounting to me the insanity of his last move. He and his fiance were so pressed for time that on their last day as they were furiously packing, they realized they had too much stuff. They didn't want it, Salvation Army was closed, and they were too tired to deal with any other options.
In a fit of desperation, they carried the boxes up to the roof and left them there, a secret treasure for the next person who ventures up onto the roof.
I think he should have made a treasure map with a big, red "X" on it and left it tucked away in the laundry room, though.


Why Can't Urban Design be Funny?
I was thinking last night about one of favorite ideas which I've written about in the past: to go out to a rural subdivision or out on some backwater road and put up a streetsign that reads, "E 231st Street." It's the perfect doubletake. I like the idea because it reflects my personality. It's mischievous, funny, and it asks people to think twice about where they are, how the place got it's name, and how it relates to other places. It's a joke that is, on some level, serious.
I believe every project should clearly reflect the personality of its designer, but either I'm looking at the wrong projects or there are a lot of designers out there with the same personality. If we were artists the range of work out there would be more than anyone could fathom. Instead we consider ourselves professionals and we all fall in line. In my case, a big part of my personality is my sense of humor. But there is a strong resistance to humor in urban design. Why?
I ask my friends this and they ask me what, exactly, would constitute funny urban design. Not a bad question, actually. But it reminds me of the response I often receive when I tell people that I used to perform improv comedy. There's always some jackass who says, "OK. Be funny. Go," not understanding that without context nothing is funny.
So what makes the East 231st Street sign funny? Two things, I think. (although if you have to explain why a joke is funny it's a sure sign that it isn't) First, as i referenced before, is the context. I originally had this idea when I discovered that my roommate in college, who claimed to be from Philly and the 'hood, actually lived on "Covered Bridge Road" in the suburbs. Covered Bridge Road? Could there be any better streetname to out someone as being suburban? I told him he should swap his streetsign for something much more urban to cover his tracks. We laughed at the idea of bolting an urban streetname onto the wooden supports for a revolutionary era bridge. Seeing one next to the other would be wonderful.
Second, it is impulsive. It has the aura of a gag someone left behind as they were just finishing up a project. The designer stands in the middle of his project, overlooking five years of hard work and says, right before he leaves, "This is all good and well, but I need to leave my signature here somewhere. There has got to be something that makes people smile, something definitively idiosyncratic. A piece of ME." And so he (and by "he," I mean "me.") sticks a nonsensical streetsign in the middle of the project.
That, I think might be the answer to this problem. Designers shouldn't be afraid of putting hidden punchlines in their projects, like the New Yorker cartoonist Al Hirschberg, who would sign a number next to his name in most drawings indicating the number of times he hid his daughter's name, Nina, in the drawing. Urban design with this kind of flair is not only funny (or at least entertaining and interactive - I'll settle for that), it encourages people to hunt out the secrets of their environments. If people know there are jokes hidden in their neighborhoods, they will always be on the lookout for humor and idiosyncrasies in their lives.


Dead End Signs
Interesting piece in the New York Times today about street signs around the city for streets long gone. When do you get rid of them?
The Harmonious City Doesn't Exist
There's a wonderful article - an extended eulogy, really - in last weeks' New Yorker. Adam Gopnik writes a fascinating description of the worldview of Kirk Varnedoe, former chief curator of painting and scultpure at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As an urban designer, I found his views on art startingly similar to my own views on urban design. This is a theme for me lately, wondering why urban design is not treated as art, is not thought of as having the potential to affect lives and thoughts in the same way a painting or a sculpture can. There are small urban design movements geared towards educational urban design - the city as classroom and so forth - but that in and of itself speaks of the absence of teaching in urban design. You never hear about movements to make art more educational. Art is education. Why isn't urban design?
Some of the quotes that caught my eye:
[I]n art history description was all the theory you needed; if you could describe what was there, and what it meant (to the painter, to his time, to you), you didn't need a deeper supporting theory. Art wasn't meaningful [to Varnedoe] because, after you looked at it, someone explained it; art explained itself by being there to look at.

...[H]is natural mode was to talk in terms of tension rather than harmony. What was weird about the picutres was exactly what there was to prize about them, and, his style implied, all the nettled and querulous critics who tried to homogenize the pictures into a single story undervalued them, because in a sense, they undervalued life, which was never going to be harmonized, either.

And finally, "Where there seemed to be things, there were stories."
That's it, right there. Urban life is never going to be harmonious. It's going to continue forever to push along, stumbling over itself and creating contradictions in the process. The contradictions fuel the pushing, and the pushing fuels the contradictions. If it sounds familiar it's because cities can only reflect those who inhabit them. Look in the mirror. Or look in the city. Same thing. Everything, every building, every park, every neighborhood already holds a story and urban designers should be the emcees, arranging the buildings and places just so to make the stories audible to even the deafest ear.
This is the meat of the issue for me, that the inherent constraints of urban design, the performance requirements and financial demands, should be egging us to make better cities and not holding us back. Artists are constantly breaking down and recreating their work, but urban design seems to be merely plodding along and churning out projects. Some of my frustration is inevitably due to my youth, energy, idealism, and naivite. But I am seeing things that are there, I am sure. In its attempt to be a legitimate profession, urban design is becoming too professional and less legitimate.


The Suburban Big Brush
Talking to my friend Jason yesterday about the difference between urban design for cities and suburban urban design (there has got to be a better term for that), he wisely pointed out that in the 'burbs urban design is painted with a big brush and grand sweeping gestures while in the city it's the details that make or break the project. He couldn't be more right. People come to the city for stimulus, to see and be seen, to be overwhelmed for a little while. And then, when they're tired, they return home to the suburbs where life is easy and they can turn half their brains off.
It goes hand in hand with what my father says about raising children. "Anything to ease the pain," he says. And I see it. My sister and her family live up in Marin in a gorgeous home. It is quiet and soothing and I don't blame them the slightest. This makes me wonder if raising children in the city were easier, would it change the whole dynamic of city life?
Interactive Graffiti
There's a new piece of sidewalk graffiti out on the sidewalk of my block this week. In lime green block letters, it says, "WILL YOU GO WITH ME?" and then underneath, in smaller letters, it has the words, "YES" and "NO," as if I'm supposed to circle the appropriate response. I'm not sure where the artist is going, but I'm certainly leaning towards circling "YES."
As a general rule, any time art requests interaction I try to obey as best I can. I'm nothing if not obedient in that respect.

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