Outdoor Rooms

Steve Mouzon, writing for his Original Green blog:

There may be nothing you can do inside your house to reduce utility bills as effectively as building great outdoor rooms outside your house. A series of outdoor rooms around a house, if designed well enough, can entice you to spend a lot more time outdoors. Couple this with a great public realm of streets, plazas, squares, greens, parks, and playgrounds, and it’s possible to spend enough time outdoors to get acclimated to the local environment. Do this, and you may not need the heating or cooling equipment when you return indoors.

Steve continues with some practical tips and guiding principles for how to create great outdoor rooms.


Monument Valley - The Failure of the Starchitects

Larry Speck, writing for Archinect, has an article lamenting the poor quality of urban “Starchitects”:

While in Dallas last week, I took a few minutes to walk from my office to the new Arts District where there are buildings by five Pritzker-Prize-winning architects within sight of each other—Nasher Sculpture Center by Renzo Piano, Meyerson Symphony Center by I.M. Pei, Norman Foster’s Winspear Opera House, Wyly Theater by Rem Koolhaas and, nearby, Thom Mayne’s Museum of Nature and Science. All of these buildings are monuments of late 20th century/early 21st century architecture.

Collectively, these buildings make a terrible urban environment. What should be a thriving, enlivening experience is, in fact, really dull. Have the star architects of our era forgotten how to make a city?

It is not surprising to me that a collection of “starchitecture” would be wholly inhospitable to people. The architectural elite focus on one thing - purity of design vision. This is design for design’s sake rather than design for humanity’s sake. The problem, I think, is one of ego. It is difficult for a Pritzker Prize[1] winning architect to willingly subvert the purity of his design for the good of the city. In reality, it is the good of the city that is subverted for the whims of the architect.

The architectural elite, it seems, have no concept of a background building - a building whose primary purpose is to elegantly provide for the needs of its occupants and to be an upstanding “citizen” of the urban environment. The background building contributes to a greater whole rather than demanding individual attention. Background buildings should be a high percentage of every architect’s work yet very little emphasis is placed on what makes an ordinary building great. The pursuit is not for individual glory, for either the building or the architect, but for the glory of the street, the neighborhood, and the city.

  1. What does this say about the value of the Pritzker Prize if a district that has such a collection of buildings by previous winners can create such a dismal environment?  ↩


Giving it Away

Topic Simple put together a video about the great paradox of the design world - people expect us to work for free. Unfortunately, this is a growing trend but it only works if we let it. In the architecture world, it’s not uncommon for a client to shortlist down to 4–5 firms and then have an unpaid “design competition” to determine the winner. These competitions can be very involved costing all teams into 6 figures worth of spec work and only one team will end up with the contract! This is just wrong. Let’s stop giving away our expertise for free!


Lush Life in the City

Frank Bruni’s recent New York Times article expounding on the great strides New York has made in improving the quality and access to urban open space includes this gem:

“We’re living in an era of re-urbanization,” said Catherine Nagel, executive director of the City Parks Alliance, which is sponsoring the conference in New York. And the increased population density means that “we need green space,” she said.

Amazingly, we’re getting it: because citizens have demanded as much; because governments have made it a priority; because public and private partnerships have been cultivated. New York is the bright flower of all that.

The quality, frequency, and quantity of great urban open space is so vital to creating a vibrant community for people to thrive. It’s great to see New York committed to expanding on its great urban park legacy and leading the way for the rest of America’s cities.


Bankrupt Cities

Charles Mahron, writing for his Strong Towns blog, addresses the bankruptcy of San Bernadino, the third California city to do so this year:

In fact, we’re essentially experiencing default of one type or another in almost every city in this country. In every city that I’ve ever interacted with, basic maintenance of critical infrastructure is being deferred because the city lacks the immediate cash necessary to complete the task. As maintenance is deferred, the costs expand, a cascade of compounding, future liabilities. Look at your own community and understand that not all defaults will be accompanied by formal bankruptcy filings. Most seem likely to be just a general across-the-board decline.

As for specific reasons San Bernadino couldn’t meet it’s obligations, he rejects the notion that the public safety unions demanded too much and cites this reason:

From all outside appearances, it seems that the business of San Bernardino – the apparent reason for it existing – was to build San Bernardino. A full 13% of the work force is still in construction, with much of the other employment coming in secondary, service industries (education, health care, etc…). The city was #11 on the list of Top 101 cities with the largest percentage of males in the construction and extraction occupations (#16 for females). City budgets still show huge revenue projections for permit fees, plan review fees and development impact fees.

How many cities need to go bankrupt before we realize that the suburban pattern isn’t sustainable? My prediction - quite a few more but attitudes are slowly changing.


A Monumental Conflict

Paul Goldberger, writing for Vanity Fair, provides an excellent and comprehensive overview of the Eisenhower Memorial controversy. I thought it was a well considered and mostly fair assessment. His portrayal of Frank Gehry as an open minded, democratic designer seemed a little generous and his depiction of the NCAS as the “aesthetic far right” seemed arbitrarily alienating, but overall it was a good read.

I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment of successful monuments:

The greatest memorials, whatever their architectural style, have conveyed a single, powerful idea with absolute clarity: the Washington Monument speaks of the singularity of the man who, more than any other, established the United States; the Lincoln Memorial of the democratic vision of the man who held it together.

That brief statement nicely summarizes my biggest issue with Gehry’s design. I don’t see the clear, concise, and coherent vision that should tie the memorial together. Add to that the misguided, if accidental, allusion to the Iron Curtain in the steel tapestries and it is just not a compelling vision for what should be stately memorial.

I also found this brief interlude into the continued relevance of classicism interesting:

There is no question that classicism is richer and more versatile an architectural language than many modernists believe it to be, and that it will never, in one sense, be passé. The Lincoln Memorial alone is proof of that. But if the success of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial means anything, it is how necessary it is to continue to invent as well as to be willing to learn from the past, and how new models of memorial design can, under the right circumstances, be both moving and beautiful.

I grow weary of the black and white philosophy of architecture. I come down hard on modernism because it is the status quo and the intolerance of a minority by a majority is always offensive. However, proponents of classicism are guilty of intolerance as well. I personally lean towards the traditional but well done human scaled modern architecture can be compelling as well. I dislike the dogmatic stances that both sides take and I feel that such hard line views are disruptive to a constructive design dialogue that could occur.


Here's to your Health! - The Built Environment and Public Health

Katharine Logan, writing for GreenSource, has an article exploring the links between the built environment and public health:

The leading killers of our time are chronic ailments: heart disease, strokes, cancers, and diabetes. They share common risk factors: obesity, physical inactivity, poor diet, and smoking. New collaborations between the health and place-making professions are confirming that most of these conditions, as well as others, respond to a common factor: the built environment.

A sedentary lifestyle has been linked with chronic diseases for quite some time. It seems an obvious conclusion that a built environment that promotes a sedentary lifestyle would be linked with chronic diseases as well. But it’s not just the sedentary lifestyle - access to daylight, views, and green amenities is also important. This is an ingredient that has been dubbed “Vitamin G”:

In a 2006 study, Peter Groenewegen and colleagues correlated health data from across the Netherlands with access to green space, including household and community gardens, neighborhood parks, and larger natural areas. Their results indicate that people with access to nature are physically and mentally healthier than those without.

The mechanism by which Vitamin G boosts health is still under investigation. It could be the exercise, of course. It could also be the social interactions that result from getting out, walking, or gardening: Ongoing research into social capital and health by Ichiro Kawachi of Harvard University’s department of society, human development, and health finds an association between people’s health and their perceptions of the trustworthiness of other people in their community. Or it could be an effect of the view itself: A 2001 study by Frances Kuo at the University of Illinois found that, of 145 residents of a Chicago public housing project, those with a view of trees were better able to cope with life’s demands than those with a barren view.

I have long held the view that good urban design is a concern of public health. I am glad to see the two linked and I hope to see more of that in the future. It seems obvious to me that the way a community is organized and the form of its public spaces would have an immense impact on public health. Creating environments for people to thrive includes a focus on physical and mental health.

The article included several examples of projects that illustrate the changing attitudes within the design and development industry towards creating healthier places. Unfortunately, these example projects all take a sort of futurist approach. One of the primary issues of focusing on creating a “green” project is that these “green” strategies become drivers of the form and aesthetics. The result is a sort of techie-green futuristic look that doesn’t really reflect the humanity of a place. The problem of a sedentary lifestyle is a relatively recent issue (within the last 100 years). Perhaps there could be something gained from looking to the past as well as the future. For me personally, I didn’t resonate with the architecture shown in the article. I think there is an additional overlay in this discussion that looks at the quality of the architecture and the quality of the place in creating an environment for thriving. I would prefer a more human focused, human scaled design that also takes into account the sustainability and public health goals of the project.


The Next iPhone and Transit Data

Emily Badger, writing for The Atlantic Cities, ponders how the next iPhone will expose the lack of open transit data:

Apple’s in-house software, in other words, will be able to tell you how to get from LaGuardia to Yankee Stadium by car, but not by public transit. For now, at least, Apple appears to be banking on third-party developers to fill that gap by creating transit tools you can download in the app store. But the strategy relies on a pretty big assumption. Third-party developers need open data to build these tools.

I have several thoughts on this.[1] First, transit data should be open. It is better for everyone (except maybe Google) for that information to be as widely distributed as possible. The notion that transit agencies should make money from the data is ludicrous. Making the data available is part of getting people to choose transit. If the agencies really want to make money from the data stream they can always put their own app in the AppStore and either charge for it or put ads in it.

Second, it is extremely unlikely that Google will completely cede its presence on the iOS platform just because Apple is replacing Google data with their own in house data in the native Maps app. I guarantee there will be a Google Maps app in the AppStore and that app will have access to Google’s transit data.

Finally, this actually allows forward thinking agencies the ability to build really great custom apps that contain richer data than the standard format and have those apps featured in a way that will get them used. Think about an app that in addition to giving good transit directions also tells you the bus is running 5 minutes late. Or imagine an app that notifies you when your bus is 10 minutes from your stop.

Rather than being a problem, I view Apple’s decision as an opportunity - an opportunity to push for open data and an opportunity for really great apps to be made. And the Google maps will be there if needed as a stand alone app in the AppStore.

  1. A point of clarification - this change is in iOS not specifically the next iPhone. The two will likely be introduced nearly concurrently but the change effects all iOS devices running iOS 6, not just the new iPhone.  ↩


The Mall Turns 60 - Time to Retire?

Emily Badger, writing for The Atlantic Cities, has a fascinating piece about the history of suburban shopping malls. Malls aren’t doing so well and are not-so-surprisingly morphing back into mixed use Main Streets:

Americans haven’t particularly outgrown the consumer impulse that Gruen detected. We still love to flock to dense agglomerations of Body Shops and Cinnabuns and Brookstones. But now those places look increasingly like open-air “lifestyle centers,” with condos above or offices next door. Some of these places are just the old mall in a new Main Street disguise. But when you add residences, and cut Gruen’s mega-block into what actually looks like a downtown street grid, that begins to change things.

This is a return to the natural order. Our 60 year experiment has proved disadvantageous and it’s time to retire the mall and reorient our retail back into mixed use, walk able Main Street districts.


Bombastic Classicism

Paul Goldberg, writing for Vanity Fair, has an interesting critique of the classical Bomber’s Memorial in London. In it, he argues that classicism is not able to encompass the complexity and nuance of memorializing something that comes with mixed feelings:

I say that not to make a historical judgment but to point out that this memorial commemorates an aspect of World War II fraught with ambiguity, even now, and classicism rarely serves such situations well. Classical architecture is absolute, simple, direct, and clear. It evokes associations with nobility, grandeur, and high aspiration. There is no irony in classicism, and there is rarely any ambiguity. Indeed, this is surely part of the reason that the classical style has so often felt right for courthouses in the United States: dignity, clarity, fairness, and propriety are what we want from the legal system, and we like buildings that announce this to us at the outset.

But is it what we want for a public monument commemorating a chapter in history in which, for all we respect the courage of those who are being honored, may still bring about mixed feelings about what they were called to do? The bombastic architecture renders the complexities of this historical chapter moot. The Bomber Command Memorial made me grateful yet again for the genius of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington, D.C., which so brilliantly and respectfully paid tribute to the fallen soldiers while acknowledging a nation’s complex and contradictory feelings toward their mission.

I’m not sure classical architecture would be capable of such nuance under even the best of circumstances.

As I have already mentioned, The Providence Journal’s David Brussat provides the rebuttal to this argument in his article about the Bomber Command Memorial in London:

Nuance is what historians are for. Monuments articulate the abiding truths of history [e.g., freedom over tyranny]. When architects use architecture to articulate nuance, they end up articulating nothing.

Putting aside the issue of style for now, let’s explore the precedent of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial. The Vietnam Memorial is clear, concise, and simple. The nuance is in the reading of the message rather than in the design itself. Gehry’s Eisenhower memorial is lacking the clear, concise forms and tries to push a narrative rather than a simple message. The Bomber Command Memorial is simple in its forms but leaves the nuance to historians. My feeling is that whether nuance is included or not, we should make memorials that are immediately discernible and are clear and concise. The Vietnam Memorial and the Bomber Command Memorial both fit. The Eisenhower Memorial does not.

I personally would tend to leave the nuance to the historians. If the decision has been made to memorialize something then that infers that society has deemed that thing worthy of memorialization in some way. We should celebrate that which makes it worthy while leaving the complexity and ambiguity out of the physical design. A monument is not history or commentary but rather a celebration of good - whether it be triumph, courage, accomplishment, honor, or love.