Brand points out the double meaning in the word “building” (both noun and verb, action and result) to explain that architecture is not a fixed entity. Thus buildings can evolve toward greater complementarity with their occupants and surroundings. Brand recommends that building processes incorporate this notion of continuous adaptation and improvement with time.
Throughout the book, buildings are discussed in ecological terms. Brand relates “low road” and “high road” development to r- and K- selected species. The low road is associated with rapid cycles of adaptive use and reuse (such as an industrial warehouse converted to a restaurant, then a bar, then apartments). The high road refers to incremental change over generations (such as a mansion cared for lovingly and eventually preserved as a museum). A combination of both approaches can bring about multifaceted environments that are both attractive and useful.
Brand finds that “age plus adaptivity is what makes buildings come to be loved. The building learns from its occupants, and they learn from it.” People modify the built environment, and in the process discover ways of making buildings last. If the longterm use of buildings is an effective means of conserving resources, the ideas presented in How Buildings Learn have much to contribute to sustainable development.
There is a six-part BBC series on How Buildings Learn posted for free viewing on Google Video (see links to each part below).
1 of 6 - "Flow"
2 of 6 - "The Low Road"
3 of 6 - "Built for Change"
4 of 6 - "Unreal Estate"
5 of 6 - "The Romance of Maintenance"
6 of 6 - "Shearing Layers"
(Photo included with permission from William Bernthal. The original full-sized version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)
In a recent Washington Post article Joel Kotkin uses the term “New Localism” to describe a series of current (escalating) shifts in the operative and moral landscape of U.S. everydayness. Not unlike its trampled cousin, New Urbanism, New Localism is, in essence, reactive conservatism with a big smile and even bigger—albeit comforting—words. Kotkin’s New Localism choses familiar concepts like the strengthening of “community”, the virtues of “small town” organization and lifestyles, or the risks of dispersion and dislocation brought about by global dynamics. It’s a story we’ve heard before: local is good, worldly is bad; big tends to be nasty and small is beautiful. But why?
We are falling back into a time of fundamental uncertainty; uncertainty generates insecurity, and insecurity usually promotes conservative tendencies. The U.S. in particular has a longstanding tradition of moving back and forth between isolationism and international involvement. These broad political, social and moral tendencies become evident not only through public policy or in the handling of foreign affairs, but often seep into the organization and production of space. At the scale of the city (or the suburb) isolationism might be expressed in the concentration on personal or family ties, populist distortions of Main Street America and the tainted concept of community itself. All of these issues are at the heart of the New Localist repertoire, with its odes to the Pleasantville life of playhouses and pushcarts and evenings at the philharmonic; a buffered, conflict-free quotidian existence of home offices, “staycations”, local rodeos and farmers’ markets.
Does any of this really promote “community” bonding, or at least transcend the selfish, individualistic nature of consumerist society? Not really. In fact, behind the homey, comfy and seemingly innocuous rhetoric of New Localism lie some very old and serious dangers, including self-absorption, bigotry, and—despite its supposed purpose of bringing people closer—fragmentation.
Regardless of Kotkin’s misleading perspective, the notion of “breaking down” the scale of everydayness into manageable and more grounded units might indeed be crucial for approaching our (near) future agglomerations. New Localism should not be understood as a lifestyle, but as a mindset; a way of providing more focused, immediate and realistic grasp on the things that make our cities or suburbs or exurbs (or whatever) tick. I’m all for downsizing from the usually abstract and overwhelming working concept of “city” into a more specific, landed, focalized spatial unit: neighborhood, barrio, district, enclave, belt, etc.
Still, it’s absurd to understand these as detached, self-sufficient, self-referential nuclei. Today more than ever, nearly every single aspect of our “local” day to day existence is traversed by the “global” . New localists might want to ignore this fact, or even worse, “reverse” it. This is especially evident when they go on about their conservative fantasies of “community” as a condition that relies on a strong physical and cultural proximity, a source of consensus and immutability. Not. A grounded, localized focus doesn’t necessarily have to be at odds with a networked, dispersed functional reality.
According to Kotkin, “localism is neither urban nor anti-urban. At its heart, it represents something larger: a historic American tradition that sees society’s smaller units as vital and the proper focus of most people’s lives.” But he’s wrong. There’s nothing particularly “American” about focusing on “community” or smaller aggregations. Kotkin goes on to affirm that this small-unit type of organization is what good ’ol Tocqueville noted as the main difference between U.S. political structure and its European counterparts. He seems to have skipped the chapter where Alex d.T. writes of another feature, which actually sounds more intimately American. Regarding individuals in democracies, Tocqueville remarks:
They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.
Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.
Is Obama's ascent a further sign...that our cities are back and that the country is making peace with its non-agrarian side? And would a big-city president address as never before the problems of our urban cores -- blighted housing, shoddy public transit, dismal schools?Well, one can hope, but few of these problems have traditionally been considered national in scope -- the president doesn't build subways or set school curriculum for example. Of course, the federal government does play an important role in funding local projects, and with economic crisis potentially leading to mass transit cuts, among other things, this role is even more important.
One of the first interest groups [Obama] met with after securing the Democratic nomination in June was an alliance of bicycling advocates.
(Photo from Flickr user glennharper. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)
The plan for Hunters Point calls for traditional remediation and an eventual cover of paving to keep soils away from human habitation. The reactivation of natural soil systems, though, could reduce dependency on infrastructure and provide a more complete long term clean-up solution. Furthermore, emerging technologies are generating novel bioremediation methods that change how contaminated sites can be cleaned. A closer look at soils and remediation is warranted.
In natural ecological systems, soil is created as wind and water erode rock into ever smaller pieces. Simultaneously, plants convert carbon dioxide, water, and light into food, which moves through the food chain until it eventually decays into the soil as well. Over time, soil develops hydrological and biological cycles that support and reinforce each other, stabilizing the environment through meteorological and seasonal variations.
In urban soil systems, impervious paving and storm sewers disrupt the relationship between water and soil. Creeks are channeled into culverts, surface vegetation dies, and soils wash away in storms. By disrupting interdependent functions cycles, urbanization destabilizes beneficial soil systems.
For many cities coping with climate change and the environmental shifts that come with it, the reactivation of natural soils systems offers a means of reducing strain on sewer and drainage systems and adapting to more volatile weather. Functioning soil systems can act as ecological sponges, buffering the urban environment from extremes of flood and drought.
Yet like sponges, soils absorb more than just water. Broad varieties of industrial contaminants can be found in urban soils, and their presence has serious impacts on ecological functions. In places where this is the case, like Hunters Point, remediation is required before ecological systems can be reactivated.
Bioremediation, the use of living organisms to clean up industrial waste, is often the most efficient means of remediating contaminated sites. It can also seem like science fiction at times. In Chernobyl, hydroponic sunflowers were used to absorb radioactive heavy metals from lakes. Earlier this year, oil-soaked mats of human hair were digested by oyster mushrooms to clean an oil spill in San Francisco Bay. You can't make this stuff up!
Usually, microbial bioremediation (using bacteria) and mycoremediation (using fungi) decomposes contaminants into other components, while phytoremediation (using plants) simply accumulates contaminants in their tissues for easier clearing. Scientists, however, are genetically engineering plants by splicing useful genes from other sources into hyperaccumulating species of mustard, poplar and willow.
In Indiana, for example, scientists have inserted a gene into poplar trees that breaks down trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent and common groundwater contaminant. The genetic modification allows Poplars to digest TCE where they once could only accumulate it, dramatically altering the role of phytoremediation. This sort of advance is incredible, but I wonder: can we go further?
Genes for the production of bioluminescent proteins have been spliced into the DNA of cats, tobacco, and rabbits. Perhaps these genes for luminescence could be paired with genes that create enzymes that sequester or degrade harmful contaminants? Hunters Point could be planted with fields of willow and sunflower that glow in the night as they accumulate dangerous pollutants. High rates of remediation would be accompanied by brighter glowing; as the glow faded over months and years, it would signal that a given area is safe for habitation. The soil, remediated and reactivated, would be ready to support human use.
Hunters Point will probably never be home to a forest of phytoremediating bioluminescent transgenic trees, but there is plenty of room for innovation at the polluted site. At Hunters Point and other contaminated sites around the world, restoring soil systems is becoming more realistic as scientists develop more incredible technologies and designers and planners find ways to apply them.
Hunters Point Aerial: Telstar Logistics
Soil Systems Illustrations: Jonathan Espalin
Soil Network: Josh S Jackson
Chernobyl Sunflowers: Phytoremediation History
Transgenic Organisms: Biotechnologies Blog)
Observe above: an image of Charing Cross Station in London. Below, the same image with green filters highlighting existing advertisements:
Here, as in most contemporary public and quasi-public spaces, people are bombarded with ads for food, real estate, toiletries, and events. The advertising has become so ubiquitous, that it seems abnormal to pass through an urban space without ads on every flat surface (think back to the media bonanza in late 2006 when São Paulo banned all outdoor ads). And now, we can't even count on the people we're sitting next to, or the janitor sweeping up litter a few yards away, not to be a part of some grandiose sales pitch just waiting to erupt. The advertisement space in public spaces starts to look a bit more like this:
There's a fundamental problem with being told by your environment that you are merely a consumer. Yes, we are consumers living in a capitalist society, and I don't intend to argue the merit or value of that. But there is something to be said for maintaining the dignity of public space, and keeping some places free of advertisements. If we merely see each other as fellow consumers we are, in an odd way, pitted against each other. I have to buy what you can't buy if I want to feel successful. Ads do nothing to reinforce the fundamental building blocks of any harmonious human settlement: community, interdependence, and civic engagement. Those are the values that public spaces should strive to promote.
But what's the big deal with the Geotronics musical performance ad, you may be asking? If we are already bombarded by ads everywhere we go, what's the difference adding the occasional flash-mob-esque song and dance routine hawking toothpaste or the newest Barbie doll? It might even be fun -- certainly moreso than any billboard. But advertising has a way of growing, cancer-like, taking over new nooks and crannies without us noticing. In some cities, storefronts are now more profitable with windows boarded up to shoulder more posters and billboards.
Jump ahead a decade or two, to when these performance ads have become more commonplace. What happens when civic officials see more value in a park as a place for elaborate performance ads? Just imagine your city's parks, transit stations, and civic plazas as dozens or even hundreds of little Disneylands. And what would a child who grows up riding the Citibank Train to Coca Cola Park instead of just 'the local playground' think of the city once they were grown? The only value a place has once it's been bought is what the company that bought it was willing to pay for it.
(Original photo from Flickr user annabelb. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)
(Photo from Flickr user Dean Terry. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)
(Photos from Flickr user Richard Parmiter and Ove Arup: Masterbuilder of the Twentieth Century. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photo.)
(Photo of Hornsby Station from Wikipedia. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)
(Photo of Souterrain from Architecture Page. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)
I'll be going to a talk by James Howard Kunstler tomorrow afternoon (Tuesday, October 21).
If I get the opportunity, I want to ask him a penetrating question or make an astute observation about his work.
The trouble is, I haven't read much of him.
I've only skimmed The Geography of Nowhere, and dipped into a couple of the chapters in Home from Nowhere. Over the weekend, I've been plowing through his latest non-fiction book, The Long Emergency—a book that predicts cars, big cities, suburbs and many other parts of our everyday lives are about to start dying off as we run out of oil (which will happen a lot sooner than we think).
I need some help to look smart. What would you ask—or tell—Kunstler if you had the chance?
Let me know soon. Kunstler is scheduled to start talking at 4 pm tomorrow, so submit a comment with your suggestion before, say, 2 pm tomorrow.
Gleefully gloomy. Analytically dubious. Insistently optimistic. Sincerely sober. All tonalities of questions or comments are welcome. But I'm likely to find short questions that get to the point easier to ask. And I doubt I'll have the nerve to ask certain really rude questions in person.
(Photo from Flickr user Qole Pejorian. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)
The future then is where we must look. Mistakes of the past are evident, but the aspirations of the likes of Ebenezer Howard are not forgotten. Eco-Towns may sound like a new concept but fundamentally they are little more than a re-branding by the UK government (and other governments) of Sir Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities. We also need to look at innovative as well as simple ways of bringing nature back to existing cities, ways including those my fellow bloggers have previously proposed, like tree planting and other greenery mechanisms. By looking back, and forward, we can maximise our chances of achieving a sustainable urban environment. Let’s also learn about what is already out there. In some African capitals, such as Accra, there has emerged a potential blue print for a new type of urbanisation. High density tower blocks interspersed with city gardens giving space to grow food and vegetables. Green space with a purpose, unglamorous but effective. An old idea; successfully and perhaps necessarily, revisited.
In the coming weeks, we'll be relaunching several popular Where features -- namely, Weekend Reading, now retooled as a geographically diverse report on what's doin' in urbanism across the globe; and a slightly tweaked Urbanffffinds, which will now draw from Where's extensive FFFFOUND! archive for curated posts that (we hope) will be less about eyecandy and more about communicating an idea with imagery.
In the coming weeks, we're hoping that you, dear reader, will take a look around the new site and let us know what you think. If you have a suggestion for how the new template could be improved, do not hesitate to let us know. We're pretty excited about the new look, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement! So take some time today to get used to Where's fresh face and enjoy the new stream of content. The pacing might be a bit uneven at the start while we get used to the way things work backstage, but in a couple of weeks everything should be running smoothly.
Consider, for example, the Sacred Fig trees found in the impoverished parts of Bangkok's Chinatown. Amidst a rabbit's warren of tangled alleys, Sacred Fig trees carve out light and space from the street, both of which are in short supply the dense neighborhood. The trees, which are of the same species as the Bodhi tree that Buddha achieved enlightenment under, are considered holy. They are draped with colored clothes and protected from being cut down.
Encountering one of these trees in the city today provides its own revelation. The trees do more than simply create space -- they also form the backbone of a distinctive re-use economy. Broken and damaged machines are placed under the dangling boughs of the trees in the hopes that the tree can return the machines to order. Should the tree's force be unable to fix the machines, the parts are recycled by the community.
The informal reuse system set up by the Sacred Fig trees has influenced of the economy of Bangkok's Chinatown: there are entire districts dedicated to the reconstruction and repair of old machinery. Thus the trees have served as a catalyst that both generates income for the community and encourages the recycling of disused goods. Indeed, in the words of Allan Jacobs, "Trees can do many things for a street and city."
“Many families offered the opportunity to move chose to stay. Others relocated but then returned to their old neighborhoods. When families did move, many youths remained strongly attached to their old neighborhoods. Most participating families who did move ended up in relatively nearby, majority-minority communities that were safer and modestly more prosperous than their old neighborhoods. Unfortunately, many of these receiving neighborhoods…themselves have relatively low-quality, racially segregated schools…children didn't show much academic improvement.”
What I can’t understand is the pilfering of this earth’s resources to construct one million new apartments in a place where there is no demand for them. That is what has happened in Spain over the last few years. The planning law regime combined with easily available credit has fuelled a massive construction boom, with gross over speculation. This has resulted in a country with two million empty abodes, having a further one million. Spain, what have you done? This is no longer the thirteenth century when an urban centre proved your country’s wealth and everyone marvelled at it. Three million flats are simply sitting there empty, as a testament to mankind’s greed and propensity for waste. And that’s only in one country. No wonder there has been a credit crunch. If we must spend frivolously, then surely it should be on something worthwhile. Addressing poverty for instance.
Imagine for one second our current financial predicament arose because we became too benevolent and gave too much away to help all the poor and starving in this world. Not because we built empty houses or because we were enticed into loans to fuel a level of consumerism we can’t afford. Can you imagine how less depressing this financial crisis would be? Would there have been a credit crunch? Ok, so we have spent hundreds of billions of pounds but we have gone a long way to solving poverty, disease and famine for millions. What’s even better is that the American and European Governments are going to spend at least one trillion dollars of taxpayer’s money bailing out those who gave too much away, not financial instutitons who lent money to fuel house price speculation and unsustainable construction. How nice would that be? Governments backing the benevolent and altruistic, not the greedy.
What is really going to happen though? Hopefully a tightening of credit will result in more responsible investment and expenditure programs. A focus on efficiency and sustainable building. Making the most of existing buildings and forcing people to use their resources more responsibly. Perhaps all these empty homes will actually help alleviate poverty. Cheaper homes for those who have found it so hard to buy property in the past decade would be no bad thing. Coincidentally, the figure for the number of homeless people in Europe and the amount of empty dwellings in Spain are pretty much identical. Wait! I have an idea...
James Shepherd, Cambridge (UK) student and creator of greengremlins.com.
In a recent review, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff praises Tulou as a thoughtfully designed solution to the urgent need for low-income housing in China's rapidly growing cities. Tulou, which means “little kingdom,” is a centuries-old term for structures once used to protect villagers from invaders in the Fujian Province. Dwellings were centered around an interior courtyard and surrounded by walls of mud. Urbanus has adapted this idea for contemporary use in urban settings. Ouroussoff notes a symbolic connection between original Tulous and the new models, which “suggest fortifications against a contemporary marauder: speculators who have so often forced the poor out of urban neighborhoods to make way for new development.” Urbanus maintains a sense of openness by arranging stores around the base and allowing entry portals, courtyards, restaurants, inns, and housing units to break the continuity of the exterior walls.
While Ouroussoff praises Urbanus's “graceful balancing act between historical and contemporary values,” some of his terms (such as monks' cells, Le Corbusier, and Communist-era housing projects) call to mind inhospitable housing schemes of the past. It is not clear how the recently completed Tulou in Guangzhou has altered the existing urban fabric, how it has been received by residents, or how the architects have learned from housing projects that failed in other settings. It seems the design might create islands of poverty instead of integrating residents into mixed-income neighborhoods. Low-income housing requires more than graceful adaptations of historical building types. It must provide a healthy environment that allows people to meet their daily needs and escape cycles of poverty. With hope, the Tulou design will contribute to a renaissance in affordable housing that improves living conditions for China's urban poor.
(Photos of the new Tulou plan are from the Urbanus website. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photo.)
(The photo of the traditional Tulou is from Kit's Hakka Earthen Houses (Tulou) album on Picasa. The original full-sized version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)