Archive for the ‘Architecture’ Category

How much can New Urbanism evolve and still be New Urbanism?

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

This was originally going to be a response to a comment that Mr. Corbusier left on this post. But I got a little carried away so I decided to make it a post of its own.

Mr. Corbusier,

The quality of your response was far more than my off-the-cuff comment deserved. I only wish that I was more capable of upholding my end of the bargain.

You are quite right to observe that my term “commercial architecture” refers to architecture that was not conceived of by architects. That was my whole point in bringing “commercial architecture” up. I should have made that more clear.

If you can bear with me, I shall try to elaborate on that point a little more. Hopefully that will give you a better idea of what I was trying to get at.

As I see it, the post-war architecture of this country was shaped by Eisenhower and Sam Walton. This is a little bit of an oversimplification, of course. But the point is that we did not become a nation of suburbs and big box retailers because architectural theories of the time called for those things. In fact, such things were the exact opposite of what the Modernist theories called for.

Now the fact that professional architects have had very little influence on how this country developed is not surprising. Architecture the world over has developed organically with professional architects only serving as bit players in a larger drama. The structure of how we live is too complicated to be controlled by one profession.

But the post-World War II period does seem unprecedented in one architectural respect. I can’t think of any other time in history when the ideas governing the minds of the professional architects were in complete hostility to what was actually taking place in the vast majority of construction. Granted, the architecture that the professionals design has always been different from what the common man was building. But the difference was in kind, not in principle.

For example, (more…)

Replying to Corbusier

Friday, October 26th, 2007

Corbusier and I had (or are we having?) an exchange of views over at Articture + Morality on New Urbanism. I am re-posting something that I wrote in his comment section for the benefit of those who like to keep tabs on what I am up to.


Thanks for the reply. I am sorry that it has taken me so long to reply, but life has a way of intervening in unfavorable ways.

As usual, I am struck by how much I agree with what you say while at the same time marveling at how much our perspectives differ. If you see Modernism as the natural thing to compare to New Urbanism then everything you say is spot on. But it never even entered my little blue collared mind to use Modernism as a scale by which to measure New Urbanism.

I hate Modernism with such a passion that comparing it to another architectural style seems like an unnecessary insult. Furthermore, the very nature of the Modernism ideology means that it can never be the style of the masses as you rightly point out. It is economically impossible, not to mention that most common people have better sense than to want one of those white elephants.

On the other hand, it is at least theoretically possible that the principles of New Urbanism could become a realistic type of architecture for the average person. To my mind, then, the natural comparison for New Urbanism would be to the commercial architecture that is being put up where most Americans live. In other words, can New Urbanism replace strip malls, subdivisions, and Mc-mansions?

The problem I have with New Urbanism is not the theory that underlies it, but how it works out in practice. I don’t see where New Urbanism has any benefits in practice that normal old commercial architecture does not have. Thus, I have a hard time imagining that developers are selling anything more than a chance to be hip when they build New Urbanism structures.

Slapping the New Urbanism label on a development might increase the appeal to the upwardly mobile yuppies that are willing to pay for a cool idea. But how can it have any real staying power if fails to deliver anything different than what commercial architecture has already achieved? In other words, the day that I see yuppies walking to take care of their business in their neighborhood will be the day that I acknowledge that New Urbanism has staying power.

I wish this were not so. Commercial architecture ranks just above Modernism in my book. I would love it if people stopped building sub-divisions and strip malls. I would love it if America would go back to an architecture that was more community based. But I don’t see any sign that most Americans want to live in real communities. What good is a theory that makes possible a lifestyle that nobody wants?

What does success mean?

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

While Corbusier and I have some similar criticisms of New Urbanism he takes issue with my statement that New Urbanism is doomed to failure. He argues that New Urbanism should be considered successful because of its commercial success. As he puts it…

Although I’ve expressed skepticism on some of the results promised by proponents of New Urbanism, I would still declare it successful precisely because it is a market-driven movement led by developers and financial institutions rather than by an academic elite with their allies in government bureaucracy. The arguments against New Urbanist developments are compelling, since I share many of them myself, but other major alternative paradigms in urban planning are not nearly as appealing to those who take the risk in building with their own private funds. Add to that the preferences of average people on the street and in city councils with regards to urban spaces and New Urbanism promises more potential to expand and evolve into a more sophisticated strategy in the future. There is an organic quality to it that is compatible to an American culture that celebrates private real-estate, community participation (among private property owners) and an overall modesty in building scale. In spite of New Urbanism’s resemblance to the Modernist CIAM movement in its high level of organization and mobility in advocating ideas, there is an appealing anti-elitism that the latter uses as the starting point of their philosophy that harmonizes well with the ingrained skepticism of intellectuals and the academy shared by many Americans (it might go a long way in explaining the relative retrograde character of new construction in the U.S. compared to the aggressive Modernism more easily embraced by the rest of the world).

I agree with what Corbusier is saying, but I think we have a different perspective. As a professional designer out in the field, it is natural for him to judge success in monetary terms. If I were in his shoes, I would evaluate competing design philosophies in the same way. You have to pay your bills if you want to eat. And I like eating.

But I am not a professional designer. I am a savage who is philosophically inclined. As such, I evaluate the success or failure of design philosophies by how well they succeed in furthering their ideals. On such a criteria, New Urbanism is a failure and likely to stay one for the foreseeable future.

As Corbusier himself admits in his post, New Urbanism has consistently failed to put people on the streets. Heck, you will see more people walking in a Wal-mart parking lot than you will on a New Urbanism inspired main street. And yet, one of New Urbanism’s central tenets is that urban areas would be healthier socially and environmentally if people walked more. The complete failure of New Urbanism to generate any more pedestrian traffic than existing strip malls is a pretty damning indictment in the terms of its own ideals.

Don’t get me wrong. I like most of the ideals behind New Urbanism. But the whole philosophy is akin to the neo-con’s idea that you could change the Middle East by imposing democracy. Without an underlying value system that binds a community together, both democracy and New Urbanism are nothing more than gilded facades.

To put it another way: everyone wants to be fit, but people have made more money selling fast food then they have selling gym memberships. More to the point, everyone who buys fast food eats it. But most people buy gym memberships because the thought makes them feel virtuous and not because they are actually going to put in the effort to get in shape. In the same way, people will say that they would like to live in a New Urbanism type world. But they will spend more money in the strip mall.

And I think most people buy into New Urbanism-style developments because it makes them feel virtuous, not because they actually intend to change the way they live.

Why New Urbanism is Doomed to Failure

Monday, October 8th, 2007

This was cross posted over at Watching the Trades

Over at Architecture + Morality (they changed the “and” to the plus sign) Corbusier has a new post up called “What Makes a Community: The Problem of Property Ownership and New Urbanism.” As usual, Corbusier’s post is excellent and long overdue. (How come all the good writers take so long to post on their blogs?) But I want to elaborate a little bit on his post.

As much as it might surprise the people who know me, I have to admit that I am sympathetic to core idea that lies behind the New Urbanism. As best as I understand it, New Urbanism is basically an admission that the historical way to design a city was the best and the post World War II departure from this historical standard was a big mistake.

Of course, the proponents of New Urbanism can’t just leave it at that. They have to throw in a heavy does of ecological and social justice concerns. And to top it all off New Urbanism people tend to have a big time god complex. Read too much of their stuff and you will want to clutch both your wallet and your pistol every time you hear the word “New Urbanism”.

Still, if you ignore their methods, you have to concede that ideas of New Urbanism have some merit. Since the time that man has first settled cities until World War II, cities were a place where people’s living quarters, the places where they shopped, and the places where they worked were all closely intertwined. In the medieval period the craftsmen and their families would live over their place of business. Even after the Industrial Revolution was well under way, small shops and residential areas were closely intertwined.

But after World War II, some dingbats got into their heads that commercial areas, industrial areas, and residential areas should all be strictly separated. So cities started imposing all kinds of zoning and other sorts of codes to make sure that happened. And that has stayed the controlling idea behind city planning all way until quite recently.

As any proponent of New Urbanism will tell you, the post World War II changes were all a big mistake. The whole point of cities is to have things close together. If some stuck a gun to your head and made you live in a city, which would you choose; an old style city or a modern one?

In an old style city you could walk around a couple of blocks, do all your shopping, chat with all your friends and half your family, and still make it back in time to make supper. In a new style city, you have to take your car through city traffic or fight your way through the crowds so that you can use the public transportation. Once you get to where you are going, you will be shopping in these big impersonal places where nobody knows your name and there are even more faceless crowds.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which kind of city is more livable. Such stupidity is one of the reasons why all the middle class people started moving out of the cities. They figured that if they were going to have to take the blasted car everywhere they might as well live in the suburbs where it was easier to get around. The end result is that most of the residential-only areas turned into slums where only people to poor to escape live.

Now that most of their middle class tax base has got up and walked, cities are starting to wonder what they should do differently. This is where the New Urbanism people run into the room saying “Your problems are solved. We have all the answers.”

But as Corbusier points out, New Urbanism does not have all the answers. You can’t change a culture just by building differently.

The center piece of Corbusier’s essay is a project he is working on out in the Rockies that tries to reproduce the old European city style. Most notably, residential housing built over retail space, though there is more to the development than that. Corbusier muses on some of the problems that this is likely to bring in this modern culture by saying…

And naturally there are blocks and blocks of housing on top of street level retail, much like traditional town life anywhere outside post-war suburbia, but with a distinctive twenty-first century twist: almost all the units will be condominiums instead for-rent apartments. My more experienced colleague had objections with that particular part of the programs declaring that all sorts of problems emerge when people who own and live in dwellings above retail stores. Noises, smells, and the coming and going of service vehicles are often too much for condo boards, which have been the institutional vanguard of NIMBYism. I can image nothing more unpleasant than squabbles between the hundreds of residential owner, the handful of retail tenants and the commercial landlord.

Corbusier goes on to blame these problems largely on prejudices against people who rent and on the financial realities of large scale development. While I think he is right as far as he goes, I think he is missing the larger issues.

In the first place, the old way of doing things would have the workers in the retail outlets below living upstairs. But the people who work in retail outlets are primarily working class people such as sales clerks, bank tellers, and waitresses. In this country working class people can not afford to live in new buildings that are up to code. Instead, they must live in older building because they are the only ones they can afford to live in. Thus, in the development that Corbusier is working on, the workers in the retail outlets will not be able to afford to live upstairs. If they can’t, who else would want to?

I think that the upstairs would be too expensive for working class people even if Corbusier got his way and the space above was rented instead of being made into condominiums. New construction is just too expensive for working class people to afford no matter how you offer it. You can’t make a profit renting it to working class people anymore than you can make a profit selling it to them.

But even aside from that, there are broader cultural issues standing in the way of New Urbanism. The old styles cities worked because the culture of the time interwove family, work, and community. Just because you build old-style buildings does not mean that you can bring back mom and pop stores, children who follow their parent’s trade, and close knit communities. But without that kind of culture, I don’t think that New Urbanism will ever work.

A Preface for Ethics and Design

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

One of those weird issues that I devote my thinking time to is the intersection between values and architecture. So I was very excited when I came across a blog called Architecture and Morality (Thank you Marginal Revolution).

Unfortunately, the blog does not live up to its name as much as I would like. Most of their posts seem to be about morality or architecture, but they rarely talk about how the two intersect. But I did not give up on the blog and my patience was rewarded with a recent post by Corbusier called Lesson from Mexico: Cities and Social Trust.

I have wanted to call attention to this post ever since it came out. But every time I sat down to write a post about it, the post would get unwieldy with the weight of my own ideas. When one has thought about how architecture and values intersect as much as I have, one is strongly tempted to use any excuse to get up on a soap box. So today, I am going to see if I can’t finally get away from my inner voices long enough to quote from Lesson from Mexico: Cities and Social Trust and explain why I think Corbusier’s point is important.

Here is the quote…

These kind shortcomings testify to a broader pattern of a lack of social trust in developing nations. One of the essential ingredients to national prosperity is a high level of social trust, allowing an environment where strangers can interact freely with one another, collaborate on joint ventures, provide capital to entrepreneur’s ideas and so on. It is not enough for an elaborate set of laws to be drafted to force strangers to trust each other, it is imperative that respect for another’s property and dignity as a human being be deeply ingrained in a society’s cultural psychology. Such unwritten but consciously internalized safeguards make it possible for drivers not even to contemplate driving over medians or sidewalks, for street-level windows to be unprotected, for people to wander around the city or a store without uniformed personnel minding your business. What’s most important is that social trust makes possible for cities to be more live-able, for life to be a bit easier as we don’t have to worry about our own security. Until that level of social stability is achieved, the rich will wall themselves off from the poor, the poor will remain in their ghettos, and the influence of “bourgeois” values of respect, decency, scholarship and ambition to those who need it most will be stifled. This class isolation retards progress on all fronts, not least in the development of mobile and economically dynamic cities .

Now it is tempting to just dismiss this. If we have thought about it all, we have probably already come to the conclusion that the ethical character of society makes a big difference on how it develops. We also all assume that a country that is not very developed economically speaking will have architecture that will reflect that fact. So at first glance it might seem like the above quote is superficial and obvious.

But if you think about it, I think you will find that the above quote cuts a little deeper then your first impressions lead you to believe.

First of all, the idea that values shape the nature of architecture does not get the attention that it deserves. Most people tend to think of architecture as something that is shaped by technology, economic concerns, and taste. We do not think about architecture as something that reflects our moral values. If the effects of our values on architecture are considered at all, they are considered through the lenses of environmental issues.

Thus, the point in the quote that I took from Lesson from Mexico is rather original in that it looks at how a broad spectrum of values affects architecture. The only reason it seems obvious to us is because we are outsiders looking in. We know how Mexico City could be different because we live in a different cultural.

But I doubt that it seems obvious to people living in Mexico City. They probably think that it is just the way the world is and that there is no other realistic way to build. In the same way, I don’t think most of us are aware of how much our values impact the architecture that is around us.

For example, most people would probably attribute the US interstate highway system to advancing technology and economic need. In reality though, it is primarily a testament to American values. On a purely economic rational, America would have been better of investing in rail based transportation links.

This post is really not the place for proving the above point. But I would like to point out to the skeptical that private money built the railroads in this country. Yet it took massive amounts of public money to build the highway system that we have now. Those people who assume that the fact that railroads declined in the face of this massive subsidy for highways proves railroads intrinsically less useful economically than highways need to rethink their assumptions.

Moreover, people should not assume that railways would be like they are now if we had poured the kind of capital into them that we put into our highways. Just as highways were quite different that roads that preceded them, so to the rails system would have been quite different if we had made the equivalent investment.

Even if you doubt that realistic case can be made for the economic superiority of robust rail system and a subservient road system as opposed to robust road system with a subservient rail system, you should still be able to see why I say that the highways system is a reflection of American values.

Imagine, if you can, that I am right about the economic superiority of rail. Would that mean the America would abandon the highway system?

I think that anyone who knows the American public realizes that a vast majority of them would pay a heavy price to avoid having rail be a major part of their transport. Economics alone would not be enough to get them use rail unless they had no other realistic choice.

Like I said, the subject of highways vs. rail really needs a separate thread. I don’t want to argue the case for rail in this post. I just want people to think about how Corbusier’s observations on Mexico might apply to the US.

This is admittedly hard to do. It is hard to be self-critical and to think about how our society might be if we had different values. But I think that exploring those issues can lead to valuable insights with benefits beyond architecture.

Insanely Good Architecture….

Sunday, January 7th, 2007

If I were to compose a list of things that I dislike, the government of New York State would rank rather high on the list. In any fair minded list of the most dysfunctional governments in this United States of America, the State government in New York would rank in the top 10.

But there are few things in this world in which some good can not be found. In the case of the New York State government this good can be found is some of the insanely good architecture that the government had the good sense to acquire.

In this particular case, I am thinking of two old State Asylums. One of which can be found in Buffalo and the other can be found in Binghamton. If you have any kind of appreciation for architecture you should check these buildings out.

We will start with the old Buffalo State Hospital…

Not too many modern building mange to achieve that affect……

I am kinda bashful about stealing photographs so if you want to see more you should go to the site that I took this from.

An even better overview of the old Buffalo State Hospital is available on Andrew Cusack’s blog.

Now I happen to think that the old Binghamton State Hospital is even better. But the only photographs I could find on the web don’t show it off quite as well�.

If you want to see more photographs of the Binghamton site go here�.

I think one of the reasons that I like Binghamton better is that I prefer stone work to brick. Also, the practical part of me doesn’t like the fact that the towers on the Buffalo State Hospital are for ornamental purpose only. They should have at least made them into bell towers or something.

Minor gripes aside, I think they are both cool and I think it is a shame that they are both slowly decaying like the great state of New York itself.