World's Fairs and Expositions have produced some of the most memorable architectural statements in history: The Crystal Palace, the Eiffel Tower, the White City, Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome, the Atomium, and the Seattle Space Needle are all excellent examples. While the general idea behind these events is to bring everyone together, there has always been a very competetive undercurrent. Every country comes dressed to impress, and the host has to work extra hard to out-do the guests. Hence the landmark centerpieces.

An announcement from the people who run ExpoMuseum (a site that is most certainly worth a long rainy day's visit) popped up in my inbox tonight. The topic was the selection of the central building for Wroclaw, Poland's bid for Expo 2012. (If you live in North America and are surprised to hear that these things are still going on, it might have something to do with the fact that there hasn't been an expo here since 1988.) It's fun and it's funky, and it kind of looks like what Fuller's dome might have looked like after falling down a long, winding flight of stairs. Or if it were wrapped around the Matterhorn in Disneyland; the building is, in fact, intended to look like a mountain.

After all of that talk about the Tower of the Sun yesterday, I could try to draw some nifty parallels or make a witty observation about Expo architecture and how expos use deliberately overwhelming architecture to create a heightened sense of place, but for once I'll just shut up and let you oggle the architecture -- click the b&w image above for a larger, full-color version.

Tonight, we end with this passage from the announcement: "The subject proposed by Wroclaw for the Expo is 'The leisure culture in world’s economies'. [Guallart's] building is a mountain of activities of one hundred meters high, and contemplates auditoriums, administrative zones, offices, restaurants, a viewpoint and a cableway in its top. The building was inspired [by] the Centennial Hall, built by Max Berg in Wroclaw in 1913 (when [it] was still part of the German land) and was the biggest concrete cupola of the world [at the time]. Guallart's proposal contemplates its use during the Expo, as its transformation [into] a leisure and business centre before the event."

(I can't for the life of me find the announcement or the image anywhere online, so until I do I'm rehosting the image...if anyone knows where it is being officially hosted, please let me know and I'll correct the link.)

ExpoMuseum.com (If you're into Expos, check out their blog.)

Vicente Guallart


What's in a Name? (Or: Car-Free on the High Seas)

To discuss San Francisco's redevelopment plans for Treasure Island, one must first confront the name and its legendary implications. It is an evocative piece of nomenclature, conjuring up iconic images of towering pirate ships, buried chests filled with gold of an unearthly shimmer, skulls, crossbones, and all that jazz. But the little island in the middle of the 'Frisco Bay is not at the center of any pirate legends, glamorous or not. It does, however, have its own rather unique and storied history.

Built from dredged silt to host San Francisco's 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, it was supposed to be converted to an airport after the expo, but the Navy bartered Mills Field, now the site of SFO, for the island. The Navy decommissioned the base in 1996 along with the Presidio, and since then it has been used as a mish-mash neighborhood largely populated by students and low-income residents.

All that is set to change, though, thanks to the recent approval of a plan by Skidmore Owings and Merill to turn Treasure Island into one of the first (if not the first) car-free communities in the United States. And what better place to try such an idea out than an isolated island in one of the most environmentally progressive cities in the world? Indeed, the concept of a car-free community going up anywhere seems almost too good to be true; but in the US, the birthplace of the autoculture? Treasure Island is taking on a whole new kind of legend.

What makes this plan so exciting, I think, is that it doesn't appear to treat the environment as a token. It joins the ranks of other eco-cities like SOM's Chongming island development in Shanghai, in the recent push to plan cities that encourage (or even mandate) eco-conscious lifestyles (see Planning Cultural Values Part II). From SOM's website: "Housing is designed at a density as high as 100-units per acre—enough to support ferry service while allowing the majority of the island’s acreage to be dedicated to a variety of open spaces. The plan designates these to include wetlands capable of filtering the island’s gray water, bike and hiking paths, and a large demonstration site for organic gardening." It's holistic eco-urbanism.

In real estate, location is everything. But what is a good location? This is a classic urban development conundrum. If a location is too good, if it is already intensely desirable, trying to build there comes with a whole slew of extra problems. Building in iconic locations, trying to borrow the status of a famous building or public space or district, can be a nightmare for developers -- as anyone who has tried to build anywhere in San Francisco recently has likely learned. The more impressive the location, the harder it is to try something new there.

Treasure Island, then, poses a very rare opportunity indeed. It is a spot rich with history and blessed with a very iconic name. To see this megadevelopment taking shape in a way that takes cues from the site's intangible contextextual elements to create an iconic place is very exciting. The island is flat and small, but the design is anything but. The buildings and streets are carved out by the wind, and the enterprising architecture pays subtle homage to the modern, streamlined buildings that made up most of the Exposition for which the island was created. That island has always showcased leadership and ambition. Now that legacy is being interpreted in a new and exciting way.

And as for the name? The new Treasure Island might not have much to do with pirates or burried gold. But creating a car-free oasis in the middle of one of the largest urbanized areas in the world? Sure sounds adventurous to me.

(First photo from GGIE.com; second from SOM, see link below.)

California Redevelopments Move Forward (Architectural Record)

Bending the Grid (SOM)

If a green utopia on Treasure Island sounds far-fetched, dreamers have a plan (SFGate)


WEEKEND READING: July 21-27, 2007

Good stuff good stuff good stuff this week. If you're from or going to be visiting Chicago this weekend and don't have time to read them all, skip straight to item seven.

ITEM ONE: All About Cities poses the question "What makes cities great to visit?"

ITEM TWO: Building on the urban agriculture theme from earlier this week: Pittsburgh's Pop City -- the kind of pragmatically upbeaet media outlet that every city should have at least one of -- covers urban farming in that city.

ITEM THREE: Sheer awesomeness from the construction of Amsterdam's new subway: "7,000 mirrors hung in clusters of three on buildings along the 2.4 miles of the route that's underground. Measuring devices shine infrared beams onto each mirror once an hour, measure the reflection, and feed data into a central computer. After triangulating, the computer raises the alarm if any building shifts more than 0.5 millimeters in any direction. A millimeter is the thickness of a paper clip."

ITEM FOUR: Life Without Buildings describes every architecture student's vision of Hell.

ITEM FIVE: Those crazy Londoners have come up with a unique way to direct tourist traffic in their city: Vibrating rings.

ITEM SIX: Paris is not car-friendly. Raise your hand if you're surprised. (Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?)

ITEM SEVEN: Last but not least, Chicagoans looking for something to do this Saturday afternoon should head over the DIY Neighborhood event in Logan Square. It's the first event for a promising new urban community-focused nonprofit called Neighbors Project, which will soon be starting chapters in Brooklyn and San Francisco (or so I'm told).

Have a freakin' awesome weekend, folks.

(Photo from Flickr user shadeofmelon.)


Eat Your City

Grist has a fun new city list out this week, and they really rolled the dice on a few of their choices. The eco-zine has compiled a list of fifteen "green" cities -- which the writers readily admit is a figure of speech. Few would argue, after all, that London (#7) is literally a green place, though its environmental efforts are notable. Half of the spots on the list are occupied by exactly who you'd expect to see: Portland, Curitiba, Vancouver, San Francisco, Sydney. Mixed in with these are a number of major players with new green initiatives and enviably walkable cores (Copenhagen, Barcelona). And, certainly, examples of all of these cities' resourcefulness and creativity are given to support their election to the list (which appears to be entirely objective). But the most exciting entries are the dark horses.

The Gristies start things off with an oddball: Reykjavik, Iceland. The chilly city of the north Atlantic has apprently begun powering its public transit system (busses) with hydrogen. Even more interesting, all of its energy comes from renewable sources. Rising star Bogotá makes an appearance, with former Mayor Enrique Peñalosa's traffic-busting garnering heavy coverage.

Easily the most fascinating city on the list, however, is Kampala, Uganda. Kampala is (along with Addis Abeba, I would argue) becoming a city to watch, and its eco-efforts are only helping to build the buzz. In its explanation, Grist highlights the city's agricultural initiatives: "Faced with the 'problem' of residents farming within city limits, the city passed a set of bylaws supporting urban agriculture that revolutionized not only the local food system, but also the national one, inspiring the Ugandan government to adopt an urban-ag policy of its own."

Forgive me if the "city to watch" lable seems a bit crass...it is true that Kampala faces serious economic challenges (around 40% of residents live in absolute poverty), but that's exactly why the city's urban ag efforts are so intriguing. As it turns out, for a long time urban farms were seen as an unsanitary public nuissance. According to an article by the International Development Research Center of Canada, Kampala city administrators had to sell the perceived problem of urban farming as a solution to many citizens. The city even participated in the McGill University-led Making the Edible Landscape project, which aims to turn cities -- traditionally large-scale food consumers -- into centers of food production.

Urban agriculture is a well-documented option for increasing the sustainability of a neighborhood or individual lot. But city-wide campaigns are, I think, almost unheard of in industrialized nations. But recent talk of skyscraping urban farms in Manhattan have juiced the public imagination a bit, it seems, and one Columbia University professor -- err, Doctor -- Dickson Despommier, believes that urban farmscrapers will likely be a reality within the next 10-15 years.

But the possibilities don't stop there. Urban farms could become for the 21st Century what large, elaborate central parks were in the late 19th and early 20th. Frederick Law Olmsted famously described Central Park in Manhattan as the lungs of the city, but with new green technologies these farms could become more than lungs -- they could be the heart and brain of the city as well, collecting and treating runoff and waste water for public use and even pumping clean energy back into the city grid. If Kampala can take its rambling landscape and designate farmland zones, and New York can build towering farms, who's to say where the innovation stops. Indeed, Central Park itself set off a firestorm of park design and construction around the US and the world; what if London took that Trafalgar Square grass stunt from earlier this summer and ran with it, converting large public spaces across the city to farmland? Or if Tokyo retrofitted the upper floors of of all of its buildings to transform the city's roofscape into a massive urban garden? Imagine Los Angeles tearing down its freeways to develop sprawling agricorridors to knit long-torn neighborhoods back together, or Toronto employing a massive network of barges to form a second coastline of floating farmland along Lake Erie, or a stablized Kabul turning rubble piles from American bombings into terraced hydroponic inter-city field networks. The possibilities, as they say, are endless.

At any rate, if Grist is still around in fifteen years, it will be interesting to see whether they still use the term "green city" as merely a figure of speech.

(Photo from Flickr user namayanjaj.)

15 Green Cities (Grist)

Building an Edible Landscape (IRDC)

Kampala Project Information (McGill School of Architecture)

Press/Media for Making the Edible Landscape

Skyfarming (New York Magazine)


WEEKEND READING: July 14-20, 2007

There was a glut of interesting stuff to sift through this week, so I can put a guaranteed stamp of "Awesome" on all of these links.

ITEM ONE: Josh Stephens has penned yet another great post for Planetizen's Interchange blog. The topic: Europerfection and the untapped potential of American surface lots.

ITEM TWO: My employer, the Corporation for National and Community Service, has a new report out that suggests that commute times affect volunteerism rates in American metros.

ITEM THREE: WorldChanging features a Q&A with Clare Lockhart and Ashraf Ghani on Afghanistan's National Solidarity Program and the future of the country.

ITEM FOUR: BLDGBLOG is taking the extra room fantasies of Manhattanites and turning them into a radio program.

ITEM FIVE: Mapping walkability = coolest mashup ever.

ITEM SIX: The witty Part IV posts a letter entitled "Dear Architects: I am sick of your shit." Hilarity ensues.

ITEM SEVEN: A book about carfree living that doesn't come across as preachy? A review on MSN claims the impossible.

Adios, compadres. See you next week.

(Photo from Flickr user shadeofmelon.)


Planning Cultural Values Part II

Early on in the mission statement of the Ninth Malaysia Plan is the line "There is a danger of the country possessing first-class infrastructure but third-class mentality." As I started to talk about yesterday before the weather intervened, Malaysia's plan for developing a first-class mentality puts some hefty pressure on the country's urban planners. The challenge: plan to encourage a culture of knowledge acquisition.

As the Ninth Malaysia Plan illustrates, the country has grown a great deal over the past fifteen years or so. The government's commitment to education is, indeed, apparent -- the numbers suggest admirable. Secondary school attendance rates jumped 17 percentage points, while the country's Ministry of Education managed to slightly decrease the number of students per classroom and improve the teacher-to-student ratio. The importance of education and the growth of knowledge-based industries is evident throughout the mission statement (which is admittedly all that I had time to read...it's a solid overview, and the plan is rather long).

Of course, the government is using a set of religious principles called Islam Hadhari, which "emphasises development, consistent with the tenets of Islam with focus on enhancing the quality of life through the mastery of knowledge and the development of the individual and the nation; the implementation of a dynamic economic, trading and financial system; and the promotion of integrated and balanced development that creates knowledgeable and pious people who hold to noble values and are honest, trustworthy, and are prepared to take on global challenges."

Even still, while having a state-sponsored religion will make it easier for a government to direct cultural values, the idea of creating physical plans -- street grids, public spaces, civic amenities -- that literally attempt to re-organize the priorities of the people who live in a city is a pretty fascinating concept. While in the case of Malaysia it is easiest to see this taking shape in the bustling capital, Kuala Lumpur, the way that the Ninth Malaysia Plan describes its goals (or "Thrusts," as they are referred to in the doc) the most interesting cultural planning could likely take place in the countryside. The Second Thrust, which aims to raise the country to a "first-class mentality," specifys that "a special focus on raising the standard of schools
in the rural areas."

One of the big stories in the planning and architecture circles of late has been the emergence of very large-scale eco-cities, like the one planned for Chongming island just northeast of Shanghai or the flashier dueling proposals of Sir Norman Foster and that Koolhaas character in the deserts of the United Arab Emirates. These gargantuan developments make no secret of their chief ambition: to make people live in an environmentally-friendly way. These examples represent values-based urban planning at its zenith, and I bring them up simply to show the potential for what can happen when a rapidly developing nations sets its sights on accelerating growth by using city planning to directly improve society. If gleaming, compact Knowledge Accumulation Villages designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Jean Nouvel start popping up in the Malaysian countryside at some point in the next few years, don't act surprised.

The National Mission (Ninth Malaysia Plan)

China's eco-city faces growth challenge (BBC)


Planning Cultural Values?

We all know that cultural values can influence urban planning...but can urban planning influence cultural values? Last week's post on Resident Experience Master Planning suggested that, with significant technological advances, it can. But that is, at least, several years down the line. Is it already possible to re-direct the combined energies of an urban populace by the way that you plan their environment? Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is betting that it is.

Najib, the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, recently gave a speech at the International Symposium on KnowledgeCities in the city of Shah Alam. In it, he was insistent that the rapidly-developing nation invest in informational infrastructure that will not only allow Malaysia to compete in the global economy, but will create what he referred to as a "learning culture" that makes knowledge acquisition one of its core cultural values.

The Malaysian media outlet, The Star, reports that Najib suggested that "city planners [need] to plan for full broadband coverage along with cellular and wireless capabilities to facilitate the flow of information over and above the basic communication infrastructure...[and] policy-makers [must] formally incorporate knowledge acquisition and the learning culture in every area of policy planning and implementation and provide incentives to private companies that promote the learning culture."

The Star again: "Najib said Malaysia had placed knowledge as its top priority in economic and social development and this emphasis was evident in the Ninth Malaysia Plan."

The thunderstorms here in Chicago are messing with my internet connection and making the Ninth Malaysia Plan's site run like molasses, so I'll have to cut it off here for tonight. More on this topic tomorrow...

(Photo from Flickr user EL@Seattle.)

Build Smart Cities, Says DPM (The Star)

Ninth Malaysia Plan (In case you want to get a head start.)


The Witold Rybczynski Interview

Last week, I posted a review of Witold Rybczynski's new book, Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville. After talking to a rep at Scribner (who had sent me the book back in June) I got in touch with the author, who agreed to do a Q&A about the book. The following took place over a series of emails this past weekend.


Where: Thanks again for agreeing to do this Q&A for Where. So to start out, in my review of Last Harvest I took issue with your statement that "For the first time in history urbanization does not mean concentration" on the grounds that it undermines the difference between urban and suburban environments. What's your take on that terminological disagreement?

Witold Rybczynski: Urbanization traditionally brought with it a whole set of particular advantages. By living together in dense concentrations, city dwelllers had access to a set of services, amenities, institutions, and goods that were distinct from what was available to those living in non-urbanized areas, i.e. the countryside. It seems to me that today technology has, for the first time, vastly diminished the advantages of concentration. Of course, mid-town Manhattan still offers unparalleled advantages, but the way of life in an average American city is no longer as vastly different from the way of life in suburban and rural areas as it once was. People may still choose to live in one place or another, but unlike in the past, concentration no longer offers decisive advantages in education, communications, employment opportunities, availability of goods, culture, and so on. It is not I who have undermined the difference, but society.

W: But does the decentralization of most cities really diminish the difference between urban and suburban neighborhoods? I would argue that it makes the contrast between the two stronger, more readily apparent. Decentralization has not cheapened urban environments...as the recent "revitalization" of many cities has shown, suburbanization has led to an increased appreciation of the distinct advantages that urban places offer. I guess, at this point, it would be good to have you explain what "urban" signifies to you.

WR: Think of the difference between "town" and "country" one hundred years ago. It was absolute and affected what you ate, how you lived, the amenities to which you had access, and much more. I would argue that today the differences between amenities, resources, etc. available to someone living in an exurb outside Denver or Pittsburgh, and living in downtown Denver or Pittsburgh, while they have not disappeared, are slight. The fact that information, medical care, education, entertainment, and so on have dispersed is significant. I am not aruing that there are no differences at all, but rather that they have, for most people, diminished to the point of being trivial. Nor is the balance weighted to the city, as it once was. Suburban Philadelphians, for example, have more choice in department stores or food stores, than those living in Center City. On the other hand, we all have equal access to Netflix and Amazon.

At this point in our history, urban means all of us who live in metropolitan areas, downtown, city neighborhoods, suburbs, and fringe areas.

I think that the "urban" that you describe, and which is what is described in the so-called "renaissance" refers to those who live in downtowns, who are generally either young professionals or retired people, and a small number of empty nesters. This is probably not more than 5 percent of the total city population.

Center City Philly has about 70,000 residents (very large for a US downtown), while the city has 1.5 million, so 5% is conservative, for most cities.

W: In a recent interview with Business Week, you were asked whether New Urbanism and Neotraditional Developments like New Daleville were in the vein of Jane Jacobs' brand of urbanism and you confirmed that you did, indeed, believe them to be very similar. I agree to an extent -- they do aim to achieve many of the same things Jacobs championed. But Jane focused heavily on density as a critical aspect of successful urbanism (and, from what I remember, did not think much of New Urbanist development), so how do you reconcile the extremely low (by compairison to her professed ideal) densities of these developments with the fact that they claim to aim for a rather Jacobsian ideal?

WR: Jacobs definitely espoused density + a mixture of uses. In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” she wrote almost exclusively about Greenwich Vilage, which is an extreme example of both. I don’t think you have to interpret Jacobs literally to be influenced by her, and like almost all town planners post-DLGAC, the New Urbanism movement has found inspiration in her writing. It is true, as Robert A. M. Stern pointed out in his recent adress to the CNU convention in Philadelphia a few months ago, that the accomplishments of New Urbanism have had more to do with suburbs than with city centers so they have usually been built at lower densities. That has partly to do with the market in the 1980s, when New Urbanism started. Today, a few developers have figured out how to do high-density, mixed-use and we are seeing more new construction along those lines (Atlantic Yards, for example).

Incidentally, all ideas in urbanism that start out as ideologies (Charles Mulford Robinson’s city beautiful, Howard’s garden city, Jacobs, McHarg, DPZ) get severely compromised by the time they have gone through the sausage machine of the market. In the 1960s, did Jacobs imagine that her Village would become an expensive enclave? I doubt it.

W: The Village is certainly not what it was in the 1960s, but that has a great deal to do with people rejecting the aesthetics and isolation of the suburbs. The prices of places with a strong sense of place are rising specifically because of characterless development, which is what New Urbanism aims to change. It makes sense, then, that most of the successful NU developments would be outside of the urban core, but the one thing that the oft-cited examples (Seaside, Newpoint) share is a great attention to detail. After observing the development of New Daleville and comparing the outcome with other NU developments you've seen, how important do you think this attention to details is to successful New Urbanism?

WR: Attention to exterior detail in neotraditional developments is important. Partly it has to do with establishing a sense of place, partly with the houses being close to the street, hence more visible. I think that equally important is a marketing issue. Neotraditional development is not cheap to implement, since there is landscaping, street details, money spent on the public realm, usually a more expensive permitting process. The builder finds himself in the position of selling a house on a small lot for the same price as a house on a large lot. To offset the competitive disadvantage, builders have found that spending more on design and details of construction makes the house more attractive to buyers. The details at New Daleville included metal porch roofs, porch columns, solid front doors, often with side-lights, shutters, decorative moldings. The overall effect is to make the house appear more solid. The discovery that people will accept higher density in return for a sense of place and good design was one of the key discoveries of Seaside.

Incidentally, prices in places with a strong sense of place are not always higher. There are plent of attractive old villages that are languishing. Location is still an important factor. The first generation of neotraditional developments were in booming real estate markets—that helped a lot. At New Daleville, prices were initially set high (in the hope that people would pay more for detail), but as the market slow-down set in, prices were lowered significantly. This has had a positive effect on sales, and New Daleville now has the lowest prices in the area. But profits are lower than they were initially.

W: Speaking of money, much of the hesitation of the residents of Londonderry toward New Daleville seemed to have come from the fear of how increased density would affect land values in the area. How have things played out in the months since you finished Last Harvest?

WR: I think the general resistance to development from communities arises from the fact that new residents will mean more traffic on the roads, more children in the schools (hence higher schol taxes), and of course, development means the loss of views of open landscape, which is what originally drew people to the rural location. This is quite irrespective of density, except that lower density means less of all the above, so if development must take place, folks would prefer that density be as low as possible.

The other issue is that everyone wants their neighbor’s house to be more expensive than their own—not cheaper. So people are very resistant to having new housing that will cost less than what is already there. That is why it is so difficult to build affordble housing—nobody wants it in their neighborhood. By the way, New Daleville consists only of detached single-family houses. When I asked the developer, Joe Duckworth, about this, he said that he could have included town houses, but that would have made getting approval even more difficult, so he didn’t risk it.In Last Harvest I describe a town meeting at which Joe mentions that the future houses at New Daleville will cost about $200,000, which satisfied the neighbors. In fact, the New Daleville houses started at $340,000 when the sales office opened, although prices have now dropped to about $270,000. This is still more than the price of existring houses, so it is unlikely that New Daleville will negatively impact surrounding land values.

W: It's sort of ironic that two of the three worries that you listed as being associated with higher density in the suburbs -- increased automobile traffic and loss of natural open space -- are two of the biggest concerns of urbanists regarding suburban and especially exurban development, yet the two sides view these problems from slightly different angles. All of it, as you note in your book, gets lumped together as "sprawl." This seems to support your claim that sprawl is actually a myth, a scapegoat for change.

WR: As I wrote in Last Harvest, sprawl is always perceived as somebody else's fault. I think there are serious issues to be addressed in a country with a growing population and technologies that permit decentralization--and plenty of space--but the concept of sprawl has not so far proved useful in resolving the issues. It seems destined to reinforce entrenched positions, rather than finding a solution. Which is a shame. We need another model, that permits discussion rather than merely argument.

W: Any ideas of what that might be?

WR: I don't. But I do hope that it will be based on something other than prejudice, misinformation, and self-interest. Actually, replacing one simplistic model by another would not achieve much. I'm hoping that readers of Last Harvest come away with an appreciation of the complexity of the community building process. That would be a start.

Witold Rybczynski talks to Diane Brady of Business Week


Additional Weekend Reading

Two more things to add to the list:

SO GREAT! - Hugh Pearman's top-notch critique of the Global Cities exhibit at London's Tate that turns into a riff on starchitecture and its shortcomings. Some of the best architectural writing I've read in a while.

SO WHAT? - The U.S. Govermnent has made the embarassingly insipid promise to build/restore/preserve 1.5 million units of affordable housing over the next ten years. That's half of the estimated need stretched out over a decade (in which the need is most likely going to increase). This is the kind of move that counts on what sounds like a big number to mask the fact that very little is actually being done. The richest country in the world has absolutely no excuse not to provide basic, safe, and affordable housing for all of its citizens. Now.

Sorry for the preaching...I'm just so completely fed up with this kind of smokescreen bombast that I needed to vent. Publicly.


WEEKEND READING: July 7-13, 2007

Took me a while to get to it this Friday, but here they are: little cures to the boredom of that hour between when the hangover-related nausea wears off and when you have to get ready to go out again.

ITEM ONE: A rosy review of The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-it-Yourself Guide to Placemaking, which has quickly jumped to the top of my reading list.

ITEM TWO: BLYGAD gives a damn about the Clean Hub.

ITEM THREE: NYC considers a closed-circuit surveillance network for the city modelled after the one credited with thwarting the London bombers.

ITEM FOUR: Wallpaper* has come up with the coolest architecture site on the internet (via Archidose)

ITEM FIVE: Even more exciting architecture-related news -- the world may be getting another Louis Kahn building. (There are far too few.)

ITEM SIX: NewScientistTech speculates on the importance of preparing for the coming hoardes of urban migrants in Asia and Africa by installing infrastructure before they show up.

ITEM SEVEN: Rio's infamous favelas are getting an overhaul. (There might be an upcoming Conscious Urbanism post on this...in the meantime, here's another great article on the subject.)

Oh, what a week this was. It's time for some R&R, right? See you next week!

(Photo from Flickr user joleetraveller.)

Resident Experience Master Planning

Scattered across the new master plan of Baltimore are blue dots that represent what are described as "nodal points," areas marked for significant development over the coming years as an influx of DC-area residents heads north to Charm City. One of these dots, located on the city's east side, represents the National Bohemian Brewery, now a massive mixed-use development helping to revitalize its surroundings. Perched atop the tallest brick warehouse is the classic-cute smiling face of Natty Boh, the brewery's mascot.

The disembodied head of Mr. Boh, though, is not an original piece of sinage. The Natty Boh sign was added by the developer who revamped the brewery in a dual effort to raise the development's profile and in deference to the history of the site. The resultant sign has become a landmark for the entire area -- which brings us back to the concept of originality. In architecture and urbanism, originality refers to different things. With architecture, originality is synonymous with innovation. In urbanism, it alligns more closely with historical value. So if we look at Natty Boh from an urbanist perspective, it is clever but not original. This is an important distinction to make, because the Natty Boh sign is an interesting (if simplistic) example of the potential for large-scale urban themeing.

In her June column for Metropolis, Karrie Jacobs decries the impending destruction of Coney Island by what she so brilliantly describes as "the tyrrany of concept." In the course of her lament, Jacobs quotes this from the webite of the firm designing the new Coney Park: "Thinkwell goes beyond traditional land-use planning and focuses on what we call Content Master Planning™ and Guest Experience Master Planning™...These approaches look at not only the physical layout of a project, but also take into consideration and pay particular attention to how that experience unfolds for a guest from the moment they pass through the project threshold until they complete their experience.”

Malls, hotels, theme parks -- high-concept themed design became a standard feature for these types of places ages ago. And while the Coney Island redevelopment would be relatively innocuous (it consists of a small theme park and several condo towers on nearby Stillwell Avenue), the idea that an urban neighborhood can be Guest Experience Master Planned™ creates the potential for a whole new kind of urban planning. In fact, Resident Experience Master Planning (I should ™ that) could revolutionize the way that cities are built. Using nodal points like Mr. Boh, cities could create self-contained neighborhoods that direct how life unfolds for a resident from the moment they move into the area until they...um...complete their experience, whatever that might mean.

Of course, this sounds like a lot of loopy mumbo-jumbo today. As one of the commentors on Jacobs' article points out, "The power to shape experience is what Thinkwell sells to its clients, yet neither philosophers nor cognitive scientists have deduced how an experience unfolds or how it’s 'completed.' Most researchers now doubt if an experience has a beginning and end — which means there are a lot of externalities, including prior experiences, that can thwart a planned experience." But new advances in crowd simulation technology are making Resident Experience Master Planning more and more possible and, with the economic potential of such a development so high, indeed more probable.

Pruned recently came up with some pretty fascinating potential uses for a new high-performance crowd simulator from Paul Torrens of Arizona State University. For instance, such technology could be used to "design a mall which can compel customers to shop to the point of bankruptcy, to walk obliviously for miles and miles and miles, endlessly to the point of physical exhaustion and even death." Or, perhaps, "figure out how one could, through spatial manipulation, inflame a crowd, even a very small one, to set in motion a series of events that culminates into a full scale Revolution or just your average everyday Southeast Asian coup d'état -- regime change through landscape architecture." If urban planning could figure out exactly how to get people to do specific things or behave in specific ways, it would give new and rather intense meaning to the term "master planning".

The Natty Boh sign in Baltimore is an example of the current extent of urban themeing. The best that developers can do right now is to drum up as much nostalgia as possible. The sign atop the old National Bohemian brewery is an eye-catching logo for the development and gives it some skyline presence, but these are essentially side effects. The true purpose of this sign is to, in effect, re-brand the entire neighborhood. American society has always been defined by work ethic, and Mr. Boh reminds the creative class-type workers moving to East Baltimore to work in the city's nearby "biotech districts" of the ever-elusive Simpler Time, when B-more was a blue-collar center of industry. Mr. Boh is to East Baltimore what Disney World's Cinderella Castle is to Euro-ancestral America.

So take the central idea behind this more primitive form of urban themeing -- sell real estate through nostalgia -- and add the supreme control granted by Resident Experience Master Planning, and voila! Revolution! Quasi-historical touches like the Natty Boh sign convince people to buy apartments, even to move great distances. So imagine the potential for landmarks or layouts or sophisticated systems of these things that could eliminate traffic by dispersing commute start-times, or promote concentration and convince potential residents to embrace density. On the flip side, imagine a city where small nodal neighborhoods each operate completely independently of each other to limit contact with others and thereby remove "externalities" from the experience equation. These neighborhoods could be planned to move residents swiftly from one pre-determined location (home) to another (work) to another (store), creating an endless, muss-and-fuss-free cash-flow for The Powers That Be. Think mass surveillance pre-planned and coded into the physical environment; after all, when behavior is planned, one does not need cameras to know where people are.

Mr. Boh better keep his eye on those pesky planners...

(Photo from Flickr user rebelpilot.)

Mr. Boh's Neighborhood (City Paper)

End of the Line (Metropolis)

Modeling Urban Panic (Pruned)


An Homage to Things

Due to my mostly net-less vacation last week, I am seriously behind on my posting, so there are quite a few excellent (dare I say totally rad?) articles that I know I'm never going to get around to writing about. I have always liked things magazine, so to help clean out my Google Reader, I'm basically going to ape their style. Because I can.

If humanity simply vanished tomorrow, what would happen to our cities? Scientific American thinks that, at least in Manhattan, the subways would quickly fill with water, causing the streets above to buckle, effectively becoming rivers. Why? Apparently the island was once home to 40 different streams, though all water runoff is now diverted underground. “There are places in Manhattan where they’re constantly fighting rising underground rivers that are corroding the tracks. You stand in these pump rooms, and you see an enormous amount of water gushing in. And down there in a little box are these pumps, pumping it away." (via CitySkip)

In other water-related news, a quarter of a small Kansas town was wiped out by an oil-enhanced flood. It's like the Exxon-Valdez in the middle of the Great Plains. Up on the Great Lakes, however, things are clear and blue out at Azkaban, the forlorn perch from which Built Environment Blog surveys the Chicago skyline as one takes in Earth from the moon. Meanwhile, atlas(t) has kicked off its Galleon Trade Edition, planning stops in Mexico, California, and the Phillipines.

Time for a Conscious Urbanism triple shot. A DC blog, Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space, writes about a New York effort to convert schoolyards into public parks / New York's Streetsblog, meanwhile, is writing about London's potential street-decluttering, which sounds an awful lot like what happened Sao Paulo / Speaking of London, the BBC reports that the UK government is planning to allow locals to have a say on where public funds are spent...which, coincidentally, is being modeled after a Brazilian program. / Dickens could not have come up with a better name than Hazel Blears.

In Seattle, urbanism guru Jim Diers laments the city's move away from the more neighborhood-focused way of planning he helped jump-start / Where are the Star Planners?, wonders Robert Goodspeed over on Planetizen's Interchange blog / The LA Times (they had a good week) asks why starchitects are shunning socially-conscious design / Prosper lets loan-seekers join online communities in a rather innovative way.

Speaking of innovative, UC Berkeley journalism professor Paul Grabowicz is developing a video game to help locals learn about the rich history of Oakland's 7th Street jazz and blues club scene. Grabowicz: "Our game defines an important local community and focuses on a very important aspect of that community. In essence, we have used a video game to recreate this community." / With all the recent talk about digital urbanism, I completely forgot to mention Digital Urban, a blog that covers the recreation of the physical world in virtual reality.

Steven Varnelis' blog, "the longest running single-person blog in architecture," has a new feature called Netlab Dispatches / Inhabitat covers the fabulously whimsical Cumulus Light Canopy by Steven Haulenbeek / With its new LED display, the CN tower can be seen over 100 miles away in Rochester, NY (via Architectural Record) / Philly has 60,000 vacant parcels (the highest per capita in the country) / The Tate's Global Cities exhibit features super-high-density urbanity (via Spacing Wire / Cities as Innovation Engines at the CEOs blog / Alive in Baghdad gives voice (and video coverage) to the war zone metropolis' citizens (via WorldChanging.com)

Review: Last Harvest by Witold Rybczynski

Witold Rybczynski, author of Home, A Clearing in the Distance, and (my favorite) City Life, has two new books out. Well, it's actually only one book, entitled Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville, but it feels like two. As is the case in several of his previous books, Rybczynski alternates between a narrative that acts as the backbone of the book and a series of intellectual asides that, together, form a sort of supportive history to said backbone story. Normally this works well, with the historical details serving to enrich the central story line, but in Last Harvest, the two are separated more severely than in previous books. In short, one is highly engrossing and the other is...not so much.

In Rybczynski's defense, it should be stated at the outset that not even F. Scott Fitzgerald could jazz up the topic: residential suburban development. For those who aren't terribly interested in real estate (or even just this decidedly un-glamorous side of it) the backbone narrative, which tracks the conversion of a piece of farmland in the town of Londonderry in exurban Philadelphia into what is alternately called a "neotraditional neighborhood" and a "traditional neighborhood development" (or TND), is a challenge. There is bureaucracy, there is endless compromise, there is an utter lack of desire on the part of the developer to create the kind of real design guidelines that supposedly make these types of subdivisions -- sorry, communities -- work. About halfway through the book Tim Cassidy, a landscape architect on the Londonderry planning commission, explains to the author: "In reality, anything [the developers] build probably will be mediocre. But if they shoot for mediocre, it will just be terrible!" Near the end, Cassidy explains his opinion of the now-under construction project: "I guess I would have to say it's probably what I expected, because I expected to be disappointed." My sentiments exactly.

Upon deciding to write a book about subdivision development, Rybczynski took a gamble. Had he started tracking a neotraditional development that wound up working, this part of the book might have been more interesting. (For evidence of this, one need look no further than the section of Last Harvest that deals with Vince Graham's Newpoint development in Beaufort, SC.) Unfortunately, he wound up with a dud. But the parts of Last Harvest that track the history of suburban development in the United States wind up not only overshadowing the narrative -- they relegate it to the role of a rather long case study. Indeed, these fascinating asides, collected together, could be sold as a separate book. In them, the author covers everything from the well-planned early garden suburbs (including Chestnut Hill in Philly, where he lives), to Frank Lloyd Wright's prescient Broadacre City plans and the way that the Levitt brothers (of Levittown fame) disseminated those ideas to the masses. The best is probably the section that rather successfully argues that the standard suburban ranch house represents one of the most radical architectural departures in American history. I wouldn't be lying if I told you that Rybczynski makes the history of suburbia almost fun to read.

But even here, there is a hitch. About a third of the way into Last Harvest, Rybczynski's generally objective and academic voice cracks. "For the first time in history," he writes, "urbanization does not mean concentration." This opinion, which rather sneakily passes for observation in the context of the chapter, sets a very subtly pro-exurban development tone for the book. Granted, this is obviously not an anti-exurb book. It was frustrating, nonetheless, to see the definition of urbanity undermined in such a way. Urbanization is a term that describes the process of making an environment urban. There is a reason that the sub- prefix is added to the term to describe the kind of sprawling, decentralized growth like that described in Long Harvest. A suburban environment is, by nature, less than urban. This is not a comment on quality (though many would argue otherwise), but quantity. Urbanization is intrinsically tied to concentration (of many things), and suggesting the contrary is Rybczynski's one misstep in his careful plotting-out of the evolution of the American suburb.

Suburbia is what it is. Long Harvest, then, does an excellent job of helping the reader to understand the suburb for what it is. While by no means arresting, Rybczynski's recounting of the many tedious details of the development and planning process for one small subdivision -- sorry, communi...oh, forget that -- is certainly enlightening for anyone who wants to understand why so many of today's suburban developments look the way they do. Even better, if you can look past some semantic flubbery, it provides a wonderfully engaging history of how they got to their current state. At the very least, that history will give any good urbanist something to chew on. And what else can you ask a good summer book to do?

Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville (Powells.com)



No Weekend Reading

Apologies...I've been on vacation all week and haven't had access to my Google Reader, so no Friday linkfest this week...Where will be back on Monday.

Everyone enjoy your weekend!


Everyone is Watching You

Reality TV has been decried as death of American culture, entertainment for our most base and unflattering instincts, and one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. At the onset of the Reality TV era there was no lack of color when writers aimed to describe the medium's potential effects on our society. Despite this valiantly verbose effort, it is now difficult to find someone who, when pressed, won't admit to liking at least one or two Reality programs. Over time, even the medium's loudest detractors just got used to it.

But what no one has called Reality TV yet, to my knowledge, is a critical part of the mass indoctrination of society into a culture of constant surveillance. This thought came to me as I was reading about a new art installation/publicity stunt/marketing campaign/reality show from HBO that "illustrates the underlying truth that sometimes the most revealing stories are the ones you weren't meant to see." Via images projected onto the walls of a Lower East Side apartment building in Manhattan, passersby can look into the private homes inside, watching as the inhabitants move about their "daily lives". It's yet another evolution of the Reality TV form, this time taking down yet another wall: the one provided by the explanation that what we are watching is merely "a show". (I have to admit: it's pretty engrossing, especially considering the total absence of dialog or any form of explanation for what one is watching.)

Our defenses are being broken down, slowly. As our culture becomes increasingly comfortable with Reality TV that moves more and more toward presenting actual reality as a form of entertainment, we are being lulled into a false sense of security with the surveillance of our own lives. Manhattan provides another perfect example thanks to the Institute for Applied Autonomy's iSee project, which has mapped all of the CCTV cameras in the city (as well as several others.) In a recent interview with WorldChanging.com, an IAA representative (members are anonymous) had this to say: "It's true that many people are comfortable with surveillance of public space, especially when confronted with the usual choice between privacy and security. With iSee, we tried to subvert (or at least complicate) this binary." The resultant maps certainly achieve this: seeing the shockingly large range of the streets under constant surveillance, one wonders whether these cameras, "put up by individual building owners [with] their data...increasingly managed by third-party private companies" (IAA again), provide security or eliminate it entirely.

Privacy, after all, is commonly equated with security. But in an urban environment, when we are surrounded by so many other people, our expectation of privacy is lowered. In a densely populated place, safety replaces privacy as the central focus of security efforts. So in the city, we are especially vulnerable to surveillance efforts -- and the thwarting of the London carbombings by the large network of CCTV cameras in the West End only increases this vulnerability. I left the question of how to deal with increasing surveillance open at the end of last week's post on digital urbanism. Now, I'd like to look at some possible answers.

Perhaps the most disturbing piece of tech news I've read lately comes from Smart Mobs, where the authors highlight efforts by Cornell University researchers who are injecting microfluidic sensors into unborn insects. "Of course, when they grow," Smart Mobs exposits, "these insects still carry the sensors. And if this works, they'll be used for monitoring and security surveillance." Apparently, this is something that the US Military has been working on for a while now (not in conjunction with Cornell). And with the promised advancement of nanotechnology over the coming years, it's not hard to imagine a future in which every airborne insect is a "bug" in more than just a literal sense. In 1984, George Orwell (hard not to mention him when writing about surveillance) described a world in which people were perceived to be under constant surveillance. In Orwell's imagined future, even the threat of being watched by the walls was enough to keep the masses in line. And a world in which even the insects can't be trusted is a world in which subversion is next to impossible.

In what is certainly most representative of the present situation [of the ideas discussed in this post], blogger Glenn Weiss offers up a less dire, if not exactly inspiring idea on his blog, Aesthetic Grounds. Weiss describes a Parisian film festival that highlights films made with and for cell phones and marvels at how some of these mini-films reclaim the device that has bound everyone so closely by providing the viewer with a moment of quiet immersion: a sort of imagined privacy. "Is this the future?" Weiss wonders. "Even with some private territory in an apartment, will only mental privacy survive in the megacities? When the cell phone provides an avenue for almost anyone to enter your space, are these short mental moments of isolation the new reality of intimacy?

Perhaps the most upbeat perspective on the future of surveillance is in one of last Friday's Weekend Reading topics: Harvey Feldspar's [fictional] Geoblog, from Wired. In it, author Bruce Sterling imagines the life of a so-called geoblogger in the near future (2017, to be exact). Feldspar is voluntarily monitored at all times thanks to his constant blogging and a GPS tracker installed in his Moleskine-sized computer/phone/everythingelse, the Sensicast-Tranzeo 3000. This futuristic jet-setter shows us one way of dealing with increasing surveillance: embrace it. Learn to control the system before it controls you.

As surveillance becomes ever-more pervasive, people will determine how to deal with it on an individual -- or even local basis. Perhaps paranoid subdivisions filled with houses featuring lead-lined walls and airtight mirrored slat windows will spring up in and around cities. Or maybe features like Helio's Buddy Beacon (which seems so disturbingly invasive right now) will become the norm, with everyone being able to find everyone else, and some innate desire for privacy will force us to form some kind of new social honor code. To paraphrase that famous line: when everyone is a watcher, who's watching the watchers? Everyone.

So is mass surveillance a good thing? A bad thing? The most probable answer is that it is neither. Like Reality TV, it's just another thing we'll have to get used to.

(Photo from Flickr user Semi-detached.)

HBO's "Voyeur" Projected On NYC Building (CitySkip)

Interview With the Institute for Applied Autonomy (WorldChanging.com)

iSee (IAA)

The hunt for the London Terroristsm (The Independent)

Autonomous insect cyborg sentinels (Smart Mobs)

The New Cell Phone Privacy in the City (Aesthetic Grounds)

Dispatches From the Hyperlocal Future (Wired)

Helio Buddy Beacon