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Posts Tagged ‘New Urbanism’

What makes the mundane marvelous?

I really think this kiosk rendering has hit on something. I think this design is simple, beautiful,

functional and uncluttered (but not boring or unadorned). It’s the kind of design for the built environment that I don’t think can be ‘planned’ or forced by any sort of government action, but can only be achieved through the values of average denizens to demand that everyday things in their lives reflect cultural values. I find it pretty rare for the day-to-day commercial structures or infrastructure in America to be built with such an obvious concern for surroundings. In NYC or a national park you might find some concession stands making forced attempts to be inconspicuous, but that isn’t exactly what I like. The post offices of yesteryear I think more closely hit the mark–but their commercial nature is debatable.

When we look at streetscapes in many contemporary East Asian cities we often see pictures of a forest of neon calligraphy, advertising this or that product or shop. In America, we see a similarly motorized version of this, as Robert Venturi so famously has described. These kinds of commercial streetscapes can be functional and still beautiful, since much depends on your subjective understanding of what constitutes a beautiful landscape. However, they contrast strikingly with Victorian commercial buildings, American Main Streets, or Italian gallerias of earlier eras for reasons that go beyond new materials, new construction methods, and new technological demands. There was more going on in these approach of building small shops. There was pride of ownership and individuality evident that is different than the pride of ownership we see in small businesses today, especially and obviously when they’re franchises. There were normative ideas about how to relate your building to others without government direction. Yet, today, too many planners and designers are finding it necessary to rigidly demand less inspired designs to achieve this lost sense of place that attaches to an area or neighborhood that is working individually but in concert with one another to beautify their street. Usually this is in response to blight, sometimes in response to long, windowless walls from modernists.

Binghamton NY

Personally, I prefer when there is a demanding public who, perhaps almost unconsciously pursues an infusion of a particular aesthetic or humanist appeal into mundane structures of everyday life. Many places still seem to engage in this effort to beautify effortlessly, without prodding from local boosters or government, but as a matter of course of doing business. Not surprisingly, I’ve encountered this taking place in self-styled fashion cities like Montreal. In the early 20th century, American cities were full of businessmen who were criticized for their vulgar displays of wealth by building ornate facades of eclectic styles on even the most ordinary buildings. Bakeries and banks alike felt compelled to make architectural statements. Today, some painted numbers inside a window suffices. There are many imaginative people amongst us who can find a charm to these sorts of scenes. However, the beauty in the public realm is really being left to individuals to perceive, and is not consciously made. This salumeria might have once unconsciously arranged meats in the window this way, but that was perhaps centuries ago, and there is definitely an artifice to these arrangements today ( no less lovely for being so ). The comparison to an average American meat market (those that survive I suppose) or the local bodega is obvious. Is it a matter of money, or a cultural difference in taste or panache? There are two trends in our supermarkets today, either to update the interiors to resemble cafes and high end food markets (like Wegmans, some Whole Foods, etc) or downgrade to Super Wal-mart, Costco warehousing. Some would argue the Wal-Mart model is on its way out after peaking, but their profits haven’t shown this–yet.

The more extreme among us (Americans, not British or Dutch) would try to rectify this lacking attention to visual appeal through city adopted design codes. I think there is some validity to discouraging or even outlawing things we know are deadening to the public realm (long, uninterrupted spells of wall facing a sidewalk or public street, , max. setbacks instead of minimum ones, for instance).  But when it reaches the point of dictating what kind of eaves a building should have, we have perhaps gone too far. Admittedly, this is a fuzzy standard, and too much relies on what is ultimately just the considered opinion of experts (subject to constant change) and nothing further. What is it going to take to make everyday, vernacular architecture of things like gas stations, retail outlets, concession stands, etc to become more design conscious? Is it recognizing some hidden economic cost of ugliness, or is it just an awakening of values?  Or am I missing something already around me?

How do you feel that Hormel thinks You Just Ain’t Right?

So, the processed meat market is now reflexively fighting against contemporary trends in landscape architecture, as part of a larger battle to carve out a counter-revolution on behalf of all synthetic lifestyle elements everywhere. Unexpected quarter for a critique on suburban landscaping I must admit.

Can’t really blame them; if I was a thoroughly over-processed piece of pork fat I’d be angry at nudists/urban agriculturist/hippie/yuppie/bohemian poseurs with their non-native grasses, too. I mean, I don’t truly care, it’s good marketing. They don’t want to alienate the “pry the bologna from my dead, hock-sized fingers” crowd by their removing artificial preservatives from your Hormel product.

Still, what’s it mean for the general direction of things when a food corporation tries to maintain a distance from “natural” ingredients by lumping native grass specie lawns with artiste nudists? Is any alternative form of front yard landscaping destined to be faddish scarcity, adopted by only a marginal few? Is the suburban lawn, and by extension millions of acres of American landscape (you know, just the inhabited portions), doomed for all time to consist of shortly trimmed kentucky blue-grass fed a diet of weed killer and petroleum based fertilizer?

US Postal Service’s Infrastructure: How can we maintain and expand our public realm?

I don’t want to push post offices and mail services straight out the door yet, but things are not looking good. Even if it is decades before the US post service becomes obsolete or replaced by private carriers, the possibility is definitely in sight and the volume of mail is trending downward. How many Federally-owned, physical operations can you name that exist and impact so many communities so directly? Post offices and distribution centers are, of course, everywhere occupying some of the most centralized urban locations. “With 32,000 post offices throughout the country, USPS has more retail locations than McDonald’s, Starbucks, Wal-Mart and Walgreens combined…[but] the average foot traffic for a post office is about one tenth of that at Walgreens — a mere 600 weekly customers.” It isn’t too soon to start planning for the reuse of so much high quality space.

This marks a great opportunity to maintain and expand the public realm.  There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of simply beautiful post office facades in this nation, often made with lovingly crafted marble or other fancily carved stones. Many are graced with individualized, artistic finishes to their doors or lighting fixtures, the kind of touch that is unthinkably expensive today. Like firehouses, water stations, or old schoolhouses, post office architecture can often serve as points of town identity. As they slowly spend more and more time closed for business, or even shuttered for good, we should think about rescuing them as public “3rd place” in the same way libraries have become community focal points. Many predicted the demise of the public library in the digital information age, but libraries have reinvented themselves (some drastically so as “urban mediaspace”, a concept I’m fond of) and they have never been more essential to educating, providing support services, and generating social capital.

We could, and probably should, allow many to become little cafes and restaurants, but even better is to reinvent them as grand, new public infrastructure ala the Moynihan Station project has done with the Farley Post Office.

I invite people to please brain storm more ways in which we can save and reuse post office and their support buildings as “3rd places” and provide links to any other examples of what has already been done.

Enduring Landscapes: Setting Forth Themes for this Blog

February 22, 2010 1 comment

“exegi monumentum aere perennius”

(I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze)

Arch of Constantine-Taken in 2007

— Horace’s Third Ode.

This phrase was adapted to the motto “quid aere perennius?” or, “what is more enduring than brass?”, by my old home city of Waterbury, CT formerly famed as the “Brass City”. It came via the suggestion of a local New England WASP, philanthropist, and all-around 19th century patrician; Frederick Kingsbury (who also happened to be a contemporaneous friend and confidant of famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted).

Ironically, plastics proved themselves to be more enduring than brass, and the city experienced a long decline from its manufacturing pre-eminence. However, I am haunted by the spirit contained within this phrase; both in Horace’s first incantation and later in its prosaic, civic booster formulation. A desire to make places of our present moment  connect with times future and past encapsulates each expression, and with a similar aspiration, I am launching this blog.

The 19th century industrialist and Yale graduate Kingsbury seemed to make his classical allusion forthrightly and without any hint of modesty, whereas Horace’s comparison of his own poetry to the pyramids, impervious to erosion, had a decidedly sarcastic, but reflective quality. Horace, of course, is still read thousands of years later while many of the grandest structures of Waterbury on Grand Ave. are already struggling against erosive forces: shrinking city revenue, corrupt officials, and outright vandalism. My hopes for this blog is merely to continually post on themes posited here: a perceived lack of ambition in the body politic, on-going commentary on regional economic policies and interventions in the physical environments–the tangible loci where our  present moments are already interconnecting with future developments.

Just a couple decades ago, it seemed to me the idea of erecting physical, everlasting monuments seemed itself a dead and forgotten notion–remembered dimly as vulgar, Epicot-like Disney-esque delusions. Architects and futurists talked of a fast-paced, convenient, disposable, and  more utilitarian world. Indeed, many of the more epically conceived, ambitious structures of the modernist era ought to reproduce the grandeur and austerity of ancient Roman buildings in their current ruined state of beauty but eschewed their historical, freshly festooned antecedents in pursuit of sparse, clean lines. Yet, compare the current condition of the Parthenon’s concrete to Louis Kahn’s IIM-A or Moshie Safdie’s Habitat ’67. When modernists erected their monuments, their design and construction did not exude the same grand emphasis on forging a legacy. Perhaps they thought if they mimed the geometric starkness of form of the pyramids the structures would take on their permanence. By the 80s and 90s and 00s distopian world views seemed to command the popular mindset (from Escape from NY to Oyrx and Crake to Matrix).

Parallel to the fall of high modernism, environmentalist and ecological perspectives have evolved to provide an intellectual framework and a rationale of resistance to the turbulent, short-sighted notion that innovation is purely synonymous with cheap, easily replaced materials. Their concept of sustainability is now adopted widely and most have successfully avoided categorization as unrepentant luddites. Sustainability, perhaps the greatest buzzword of the past ten years, is so ubiquitous and often confused mantra that we must conclude the word has nearly lost all relevance and meaning.  Yet, many feel an urgency, rationally constructed in response to threats of industrial pollution and climate change, to renew what it means to tie a building to its physical site, its land and the whole of nature. Should we build our homes of biodegradable straw or, foregoing the need to duplicate effort, carve them out of reusable, long lived stone? The answers to these kinds of specific questions will, presumably in a more environmentally conscious culture, once more reflect the ecological peculiarities of a location greater than the regional price for rebar. The aesthetic choice of a window framing a view of a clump of trees will no longer suffice as proof of an architect’s intention to unite a home in spirit to its surrounding nature; ideally, the energy efficiency of the glass will be given equal or higher consideration. Surely, at the heart of sustainability, is a question not just of the most efficient methods of consumption, but the manner in which we build and structure our cities and societies.

However, to my thinking, forever coupled with the idea of ‘sustaining’ must also be the idea of ‘enduring’. If we take as granted that our societies will reform themselves to achieve grand goals of sustainability, we must remember what bestows the grandeur and what animates its passionate pursuit. The desire to endure is the humanistic fundament for these projects’ appeal and all other concerns are ancillary benefits.

As I interpret the concept, it should neither be like the Italian Futurists that wished to entirely rupture from the past, nor in full lockstep with contemporary new urbanists, such as James Kunstler, who have exhaustively decried the aesthetic decay and alienation caused by an unholy, ahistorical, consumerist crush of sprawl on our landscapes, but also might seek to exhume dead architectural styles. By building in our present with a mind to last, we will create a consciousness of the future in the minds of the young. Hopefully, it will also enlighten respect for our treasured inheritances and by slow accretion transform the places of our daily lives with endearing qualities that will predominate overall.

Still, to my chagrin, even today I can hear glib utterances by young architects that resemble remarkably notions of planned obsolescence. The same individual from a top university, who might otherwise be a very dedicated humanist, or fascinated with executing energy efficient designs, can still be quoted as saying that most buildings are not meant or preferred to last  longer than the fifty years. The response to those who question why, sometimes given with a scolding tone, is to remind the questioner we no longer live in ancient Roman times; as if durable construction in lasting materials is more than merely costly but also the hallmark of a more primitive civilization. For me, this has always sounded analogous to American car manufacturers who scoffed at designing fuel efficient cars because consumers wanted only power.

Of course, it will take more than architects to reverse the circumstances that have given rise to these types of commonplace opinions. I have lived in a neighborhood where, according to Census data, the plurality of building stock dated to the 1910s. I write this today from a building erected in the late 1920s. Indeed, I would argue that in the future buildings must be more enduring than bronze if our physical realm is to have any lasting economic value. While we do not have the same cheap labor, cheap masonry, or armies of skilled Old World artisans that made the enduring structures of the WPA era, neither did the designers of the 50’s and 60’s. Fifty years later, and our society has discovered rather than being able to upgrade and replace as planned, that it must lean only more heavily on the infrastructure and buildings of that era. Our current financial projections also seem to indicate little hope of our nation having the resources to upgrade or replace them in the next fifty years.

In this era where the word unsustainable, whether in environmental or financial context, torrentially pours from the mouths of every commentator and politician prominent in American life, and our post-WWII physical structures are deteriorating quickly, there are innumerable indications that Americans have awoken to this slowly unfolding crisis. On the other hand, there is little indication that any large scale measures will be taken to meet them.  In addition to constantly questioning why this is the case, I will research, analyze, comment, and link to urban and regional planning efforts that are seeking to forestall or reverse this reality, and to highlight efforts that I believe are heroic in their pursuit of building cities and monuments more lasting than brass.

Please visit again soon.