A Response to Father Loinjogs
My officemate, Father Loinjogs, pointed out to me this morning that my previous post that promised to write about urban design's ability to teach was a spinoff of a conversation we had on the busride home a few weeks back. At the time, when I said I thought that urban design had to aim for a higher goal of educating, he looked at me as if I naive. He asked for an example and I blanked.
Later, I thought, "Am I naive?"
So now, in the same way that we all wish we could rewind time and, having the benefit of weeks of time to brainstorm, deliver spine-buckling insults to those who offended us, I now have a response to Father Loinjogs.
I think maybe his skepticism comes from the fact that when I say "educate," he thinks of things like classrooms, lessonplans, and chalkboards. Or maybe he's thinking of plaques, monuments, or those cute little historical posts along the Embarcadero that discuss what transpired in that place during different eras. He is stuck in the same rut many of us are.
When I think of urban design educating, I'm thinking more of...well...for lack of a better analogy...rats in a maze. The way the streets and plazas relate to each other in space, the way the buildings relate to each other programmatically and historically (first a butcher, then a church, now a bar), how the edges of the city relate to the center of the city - all of these relationships teach us lessons about how things got to be the way they are and where they might lead in the future (I'm really diving back into my grad school thesis here). So when I say that urban design ought to educate, I'm miles away from hokey plaques or re-enactments. I'm more abstract. I'm not talking about teaching names and dates, I'm talking about teaching ways of thinking.

Who Cares if it's Pretty? Part 2
(I wanted this next bit to flow seemlessly from the previous post, but I couldn't figure out a way to make it work. Pretend like I created a pithy connection between the two, because it's the same train of thought)
Reading the text of a speech delivered by my boss, Peter Calthorpe, he writes that he doesn't care if the buildings are attractive so long as they accomplish good ends, socially speaking. I see what he's getting at. He and I are both physical determinists (we both believe that the way you construct physical environments directly effects the lifestyle choices people make), and we have basically the same goals: less auto-dependence, stronger community bonds, safe neighborhoods, etc. But his statement confuses me. How can you be a physical determinist who disregards aesthetics? If you believe that the physical environment is at least partially responsible for the choices we make, how can you then turn around and say that focusing on prettiness is a waste of time?
I'm not necessarily attacking Peter Calthorpe here (not least because he's my boss). I agree with him that you have to choose battles in the real world. He chooses to forfeit aesthetics in return for having a larger say in broader scale urban design isssues. I myself have made that choice often. I think it might even be logical, in that the relationships of the buildings to each other (urban design) have a stronger effect on behavior than the buildings themselves (architecture, roughly speaking). (And this is where I was trying to tie into the previous post) But the question goes begging: what are we giving up on when we forfeit aesthetics? Is it a realist's choice that forfeits the small happiness caused by beautiful buildings in favor of the cut and dried making of intelligent lifestyle decisions?
I consider myself a realist, much like I suspect Peter Calthorpe does, but does a choice like this forfeit the soul of cities in exchange for giving them a brain? Is there a way to salvage both? Can one live without the other?

Who Cares if it's Pretty? Part 1
Reading this week's New Yorker last night, I caught this line in Paul Goldberger's review of the new skyscrapers shooting up in Jersey City: "In a great or even a good city, the whole is usually more than the sum of its parts. In Jersey City, the parts and the whole are essentially the same thing..." Which is to say, the buildings manage to add up to, well, their sum.
Thinking the idiom through farther, it occurs to me that it's the way of the world for the whole to be worth more than the sum of its parts. We've come to expect this intuitively. Why? Because the sum of the parts doesn't include the value of the relationship between the parts. That's what the idiom is getting at.
So if Jersey City is so ho-hum that it adds up to exactly the sum of it's parts, you could just as easily say that, relative to what we expect of the world, Jersey City paradoxically adds up to less than the sum of its parts. How much of America accomplishes this? What's missing? Must be the dark matter that throws off the equations.


I am Wicked Famous
The lovely readers of the San Francisco Bay Guardian have voted me the "Best Local Blog" of 2004. You have to scroll down a bit on the link to view my lovely bit of fame, but it's there. Props to the voters.


Kansas Livin'
An NPR story on Kansas' attempt to improve their tourist industry included the quote, "Kansas, it's a massive small place." I like the way it sounds. I also think it's the antithesis of how you could describe urban life: dense and immense.

Tour of Duty
Our office went on a tour of East Bay projects this week, some of which we had worked on, others we wanted to learn from. We started in West Oakland at Chestnut Court, an affordable housing development along Grand Avenue. It utilized the standard housing color pallete - mostly taupe with some light blues and whites, and glowed like a beacon of newness in relation to the downtrodden homes in the area. Along Grand Ave, the architect (Michael Willis Architects) had given it an "urban edge," which meant - as it always does - excessive use of concrete pillars and corrugated metal in dark colors. Why does that always symoblize urban?
The interior courtyard of the development was nice, with a small hill and a basketball court along with a daycare area. What amazed me, however, was the amount of fencing. There were fences within fences within fences, all of which strongly resembled a prison entrance. I shook my head, thinking that the nice white people who designed the housing here were so scared of the environment that they had oversecured it. I was wrong, though. The fences were added after the fact at the demands of the residents. As the property manager explained it, once you exceed eight units of housing in a group, the residents generally demand subsections. So you need a code to get into Magnolia Court, then you need a code to get into your little row of eight homes. And god only knows the children in day care are locked up like rapists. All it lacks is a guard tower with rifle-toting guards.
I'm not saying it isn't necessary in the short run - I don't live there so I wouldn't know - I'm just saying it depresses the hell out of me.
Other interesting points were that the architect put garages in the project to meet the parking standards of the neighborhood (one car per home), but they were all empty. Why? Because the manager or developer wrote the rule that in order to put a car in the garage, it must be insured and registered. Forget it. All the garages are empty.
Walking around the site with the architect and project manager leading us, what amazed me the most was that this architect, a cleanly dressed asian man walking around with his dress shirt buttoned all the way up and no tie, and the manager, a young black man wearing jeans and a black t-shirt and sporting an easygoing demeanor, had a serious disconnect. It became clear that architect designed the site for what he thought might be needed and then promptly was cut off (or cut himself off) from the project. The room designed for adult relaxing (reading of mail, shmoozing) was instead being used as part of the day care space. Needless to say the oriental rugs and plush couches were inappropriate.
The second project we visited was Mandela Gateway, another affordable homes development right across the street from the West Oakland BART station. This site was pretty rough, and everyone agreed that the architects had done a fairly decent job, considering the budget and site they were given. What amazed me about the project was the prominence of the parking podium. In planning school one of the things they drill into you in real estate economics classes is that parking drives everything. It's a mantra. The professor makes you repeat it over and over again. So, when building these affordable homes, the architect and developer have to satisfy the parking requirements and achieve a certain density of housing, and the only way to do it is to build a level of parking on street-level and build the homes above. If there's money, you put the parking underground, but there's never money for affordable homes, so the podium goes above ground. Designers try to line the podium with retail uses along the street, but sometimes there's just not enough demand for retail. In this case, what amazed me was that the entire project was basically built on a 20' platform. It was as if they had built the utopian development - no parking necessary - with pedestrian streets and stoops and planters. Only it was a fortress, entirely removed from the street.
I am not necessarily criticizing the project here. You play the hand you are dealt, and I don't know enough to propose better solutions. I am just remarking on how surreal it is to be walking down a brand new street that just happens to be 20' in the air. The perspective is completely out of whack. Parking drives everything.


What You See is What You Get?
I have neglected my blog now for a few weeks due to general craziness. My first order of business is to post something meaningful, so
here is a link to pictures of a new public toilet in Switzerland. It's made of one-way glass; nobody can see in, but you can see out. This is deliciously strange in so many ways it gives me a pleasant headache.
Now that I've reaffirmed my commitment to serious urban design discussion, I can put off posting seriously until tomorrow when I'll be near a computer all day. But just to keep you interested, here's a sampling of what I intend to post on this week:

Some of these might combine, now that I think about it. But you get the idea.


Travel Notes (Boston)
I walked 6 miles in and around Boston in flip flops. Along with my friend Jake, I walked from the west end of Newbury Street through the Public Gardens and the Commons, up State Street to City Hall, through Quincy Market, across the now gone Central Artery, around the waters' edge of the North End (it took considerable effort not to call it North Beach), back past the Fleet Center to Cambridge Street, along the Esplanade to the Mass Ave Bridge, across the Charles and into MIT and finally to Central Square. Boston is just as great as I remembered, but much smaller. Here are the things I noticed on my walk:
-The Swan Boats are really hokey. Floating slowly in circles in a themed boat on a stagnant pond on a brutally humid summer day because you read about it in a book is something only a tourist would do.
-The Zakim Bridge is not striking or stunning, but very pleasant nevertheless. It mimics the Bunker Hill Memorial almost too well. Different colors might have been nice, especially the cables. White cables are just going to show filth.
- Frank Gehry's MIT labs, the Stata Center, are, um, neat. I try really hard to dislike Gehry's work since he's so ubiquitous and repetitive, and perhaps it fails on a functional level, but it really is funky on the street level. I think it's got to blind traffic at certain times of the day, though.
-Simmons Hall, the new MIT dorm on Vassar Street, is a riot, both in the sense of a good joke and in that it's a chaotic mess, especially in relation to its neighbors. Seeing as how my criteria for good urban architecture is "does it make me look twice?" this building passes with flying colors. It made me laugh. Did the architect, Steven Holl, try to explain in archisquawk how its design reflected its context? I'm sure he felt obliged to do so, even though I think the truth is that its entirely contextual in that its not contextual at all. I snuck in with a few friends and we found ourselves in an elevator of freshman or summer students. It was a caricature of MIT student life. One young guy was wearing a t-shirt covered with mathematical equations, another guy had Kleenex stuck to his face on a zit he had popped, and there was one awkward and very tall young woman (the only woman). We laughed.
More later...


I'm going on vacation and will be back the 12th of July. Postings will be rare, if ever, while I'm on the road.

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