The Bizarre Architecture of the Olympics

Mark Byrnes, of The Atlantic Cities, has a nice little slideshow of the architecture of the London Olympic Games.

I found the architecture disappointing - mostly bizarre and lacking humanity. Even the aerial shot of the parklands looks inhumane in its excessive scale and lack of trees. There seems to be an unfortunate trend in Olympic architecture where, in an effort to be unique, architects create strange structures lacking any basis in the human experience.


Apple's Missed Opportunity

Kaid Benfield, writing for Better! Cities & Towns, discusses Apple’s missed opportunity:

Instead, Apple chose to design its new headquarters as if it were a new consumer product, an “iBuilding” of sorts with a clean, high-concept design that reinforces the company’s futuristic corporate brand. In that sense, it probably succeeded: the building is cool-looking in an abstract sort of way, the kind of structure that will make people go “wow.” But it does nothing to make Silicon Valley a better environment for people, and might even make it harder to improve the walkability of Cupertino by sealing off potential walking routes.

In my previous post exploring the role of design philosophy I posited that the primary issue is that Apple’s design philosophy, while responsible for stunning hardware design, doesn’t scale well to urban design:

It is unfortunate that the ultimate design of incredible purity, minimalism, and rationality is so far from the mark. However, I think that it is more a problem of the underlying design philosophy than the implementation. At the urban scale, minimalism and rational purity just don’t work well. Urban life is necessarily complex, multifaceted, and sometimes irrational. The messiness of a thriving neighborhood or district cannot be eliminated through pure design because it isn’t a problem to be solved but rather a natural conclusion of a well functioning place. Life is messy. Life is irrational. Life is multifaceted. The best places embrace that and provide the services and connections necessary to thrive. This Apple campus instead turns its back on the world and becomes a cocoon of exceptional design purity.

It is disappointing that Apple, with all of its resources and design prowess, could be so far from the mark. It just goes to show that excellence in one discipline doesn’t necessarily translate to excellence in another.


Olympic Ruins - Part 2

Louisa Lim, reporting for NPR provides a great follow up to my previous post about the Olympic Ruins:

As the opening date for the London Olympics nears, Beijing’s acclaimed Olympic venues are saddled with high maintenance costs and are struggling to get by. And the most famous, the Bird’s Nest stadium, has been repudiated by its own creator, dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

And the problem isn’t just one of high maintenance costs. The Bird’s Nest is struggling to even find a purpose for existence:

This summer, the stadium stands unused — except as a tourist destination — for three months, from the end of an equestrian show in May until its next engagement, a soccer match between British teams Arsenal and Manchester City at the end of July.

In contrast with the dismal prospects for the Bird’s Nest is the “success” story of the Water Cube:

Now, one part of it has been turned into a water park, where swimmers shoot down colorful tubes into the pools of water. It’s even launched a line of branded goods, including Water Cube alcohol, which sells at a cool $150 a bottle.

But still, turning a profit isn’t easy.

“It’s extremely, extremely difficult not to lose money,” Yang Qiyong, the Water Cube’s deputy manager, says with a frank laugh.

And further into the story:

Yang says the Water Cube narrowly broke even last year, though it required $1.5 million in government subsidies.

These are the stories of the two most iconic structures of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Just four years later and one of the buildings is struggling to even be useful and the other is finding “success” only through government subsidy. Perhaps usefulness after the games are over should be a much higher priority for the organizers, planners, and architects of the Olympic Games.


Olympic Ruins

Mark Byrnes of The Atlantic Cities:

Beijing Olympics officials approached the 2008 Games as an opportunity to host the world’s biggest sporting event, not to create infrastructure of permanent importance. Now Beijing is left with a post-Olympics landscape that better suits the taste of ruin porn aficionados than urban development officials.

I love the Olympics. It seems like such a spectacular celebration of the human spirit. I love learning about the place and culture of the host. I love the amazing stories of triumph and courage. I just love the whole Olympic experience and I’m looking forward to the London games starting later this month. That being said, I have always questioned the wisdom of doing such specialized structures and infrastructure for games that last just a few weeks. What does that do to a place after the games are over? Unfortunately we have our answer in the dismal pictures of the deserted venues 4 short years after the 2008 Beijing games. My hope is that London can do a better job of finding new uses and integrating their venues into the life of the city after the spectacle is over.


The Federal Transportation Bill

Robert Steuteville, writing for Better! Cities and Towns, discusses the transportation bill that President Obama just signed:

Do you like commercial strips better than main streets? Do you prefer car culture to street life? Do you favor having to drive everywhere, including to mass transit, over living in a walkable town? Cheers — this is your bill.

This is unfortunate yet not unexpected. The political forces behind the status quo are strong and well funded. But things change. It just takes tremendous effort to build the momentum necessary for change.


New American Transit teamed up with PUBLIC Bikes to produce a great infographic about the shift away from a car driven culture by young Americans. Check it out.

via Urbanism News


Let the Kids Play

James Trainor, writing for Cabinet, has an interesting article detailing the history of playgrounds. After an exhaustive analysis of the different eras of playground thought in New York he had this to say about the future of play:

In the summer of 2011, the New York Times published an article asking, “Can a Playground Be Too Safe?” It cited recent studies in the US and Europe documenting how antiseptic safety-first playgrounds may actually stunt emotional and cognitive development and leave children not only decidedly bored and under-stimulated but with skewed abilities to manage real-world risk later in life. The research also suggested that claims (made by the manufacturers, who had lobbied for stricter safety standards in the first place) that injuries had decreased overall thanks to the new play equipment may have been incorrect, and that total injuries may have actually risen due to the illusory perception of a danger-free zone. Either way, researchers agreed that mastering challenges, negotiating risks, and overcoming fears were critical to healthy play.

Perhaps because I grew up in a somewhat autonomous environment free to roam 30+ acres at will I have always been skeptical of the fear mongering that gets promoted sometimes. My feeling is that we should protect kids from real danger but the over cautious philosophy that won’t let kids explore and deal with the risks of childhood on their own is actually counterproductive. I’m supportive of the movement to provide more stimulating play experience even at the expense of greater perceived risk. Let’s let the kids play!


Nuance in Memorium

Speaking of nuance, the Providence Journal’s David Brussat had this to say 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.


Rethinking the Eisenhower Memorial

I have been intrigued by the controversy around the Frank Gehry design for the Dwight Eisenhower memorial in Washington D.C. Nicolaus Mills, writing for The Guardian, has an interesting article about the failings of Gerhy’s design:

A memorial is not a biography in stone. A memorial’s task is not to sum up a life, but to capture the essence of a life in a unified, powerful image.

Putting aesthetics aside, I dislike the lack of focus in Gerhy’s design. It seems like an incoherent assembly of disparate parts rather than a simple, iconic vision. Subtle nuance is appropriate as a secondary level of design but there needs to be a single big idea. Take the Lincoln Memorial for example. There is a strong singular idea to the design that focuses on a singular defining moment of his life. It is simple - a single statue sitting in a simple pavilion at the end of the Capital Mall. There is plenty of opportunity to develop a nuanced narrative within the pavilion, but that isn’t the big idea. Perhaps Gehry would have had an easier time convincing us that his design is appropriate if he had focused his vision on a singular idea.


The Empty Promise of Green Design

I hate catchphrases. I try to avoid using them because I find they obscure true meaning and are used as shields to hide behind. The worst offender these days is the term green. You won’t find me use the word green that much (except in this post) since I have grown weary of green washing, especially when the pretense of being green is used to justify design that otherwise just doesn’t make sense.

In the building industry, one of the pioneers of the greening of buildings is the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) which runs a certification program called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). LEED tells us that a building that meets accumulates a certain number of points in a rating system based on green criteria is certified as a green building. This is a limited view of sustainability in my opinion because it is only qualifying as less bad. All of the LEED credits are based on the notion that if we are less bad then that is a sustainable path. This is the same theory that brought us the green hybrid cars and unfortunately it doesn’t hold up for either industry. Being less bad does not an angel make. The answer is not a better car or better buildings. The answer is a better system.

True Green = Stewardship

True green strategies add an additional criteria by which we can measure the sustainability of an endeavor. That criteria is stewardship. This means looking at a system comprehensively and making the choice that best accommodates all concerns.

The problem is that there needs to be an additional criteria added to the “less bad” checklist. This is a criteria that doesn’t fit well in a checklist because it is something that needs human thought. The criteria we need to use when evaluating projects is one of stewardship. We need to ask ourselves “Will this project make good use of our resources (including material, financial, and human resources)? Does this project make sense? Is this project sustainable from a macro perspective?” It is only through these deeper questions that we can determine true sustainability.