“One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”


That’s the famous quote by the immortal Vincent Scully about Penn Station, where demolition started fifty-one years ago today. But stay tuned—some interesting things are starting to happen, and they’re not the things you’ve been reading about.

More photos here and here.

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Top Seven Reasons Behind the Shanghaiing of New York (#Dubai-on-Hudson)

Iconic Towers

  1. Big Finance: Most people don’t realize that Big Finance is the engine driving the global movement that has had the Mayors of New York, London, and Paris promoting shiny Starchitecture indistinguishable from the shiny Starchitecture in Dubai, Mumbai, and Shanghai. It’s hardly surprising though—these “iconic towers” are the face of Global Capitalism, and you find them everywhere Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, and the One Percent want to land their jets. Why? Because the towers are the most profitable and predictable way for the financial world to invest in real estate. Goldman doesn’t want to invest in the renovation of individual old buildings, because that’s too particular and unpredictable. They want formulas for investments with predictable high returns, which makes iconic towers the new shopping malls.*
  2. Big Real Estate: Big Finance has introduced Big Real Estate to an international market of One Percenters who can’t find enough places to invest their money. Here in New York, this aligns Wall Street’s interests with those of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY—which includes all of the richest mega-developers in the city), in effect making a SuperPAC far more powerful in the state than any other. The most profitable buildings they can develop are shiny, tall towers marketed to the world’s super rich in global hotspots like Moscow, Hong Kong, and Dubai where modern capitalism has produced a small number of people with so much money that they have a hard time finding enough places to invest it. The towers can be residential buildings that get a large premium for every apartment higher than the surrounding buildings, or they can be office or mixed-use buildings that can be sold as investments to foreigners. London’s Shard is a prime example.**
  3. Global Capitalism: The Shard is in a part of London that most Britons consider a poor location for an expensive building, but that doesn’t stop it from being successfully marketed to foreign investors. The offices in the Shard are more than half empty, and a poll shows that Britons do not want to live in the Shard, but marketing offices in foreign countries sold apartments and investments in the building for enormous profits. Similarly, most New Yorkers do not want to live on 57th Street, but foreign investors buy pied-à-terre, fourth-homes there with views of Central Park for the highest prices in the city.
  4. Cheap Construction: The modern glass curtain wall on most iconic towers is cheap, for four reasons: the materials are cheap; the fabrication of the glass walls, frequently made in China, is cheap; the curtain walls require little craftsmanship or skilled labor; and the manufacturers take the computer drawings of the architects and translate them into construction drawings, saving the architects work as well.
  5. Big Unions: Labor unions obviously like large construction jobs, and they particularly like large construction jobs that allow to expand the union but don’t require a skilled labor pool.
  6. Big Zoning: Mayor Bloomberg’s world view was the same as Wall Street’s and REBNY’s. He updated “What’s good for General Motors is good for America” to “What’s good for Big Business is good for New York (and London, and Paris, and…),” and he expressed the philosophy behind the new World Cities when he said that cities are “luxury items” you have to pay for. Note: I voted for Mayor Bloomberg three times. I wish I had only voted for him twice, because until his lame-duck term he was a bit more restrained in his promotion of Big Development, which is choosing short-term mega-profits over the long-term health of the city.
  7. Big Architecture: Big Finance, Big Development, and Big Architecture are a marriage made in heaven for Starchitects, who have won work around the world and even made serious money. Lord Foster, for example, is one of the 400 richest people in Britain. From the point of view of the developers, if you want to promote ridiculously profitable shiny new towers in Hong Kong and Moscow, it’s good to have a culture of world-renowned Starchitects promoting a Cult of the New. One hand washes the other.

Big Architecture also refers to the way most architects work today, which is unlike the way urban planners design. A city plan starts with the streets and the blocks, with building types in mind. Like it or not (I don’t like it much), Daniel Libeskind’s winning plan for Ground Zero is an example of urban design: what we see there today are the streets, blocks, and building types he laid out, but without the towers he was hoping to design. Norman Foster’s competition entry, on the other hand, was Big Architecture: it was a design for a big building, and the plan only made sense with his building.

Some of these buildings are good, some are bad. Similar things can be said about capitalism, and even Global Capitalism. Extending Winston Churchill’s famous remark about democracy, we can say that capitalism is the worst form of economic life “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” What is new is the ubiquitous, one-size-fits-all building model applied to the entire world for the advantage of the very few. When McDonald’s spread its fast food chain stores cities across the world, we thought that was bad, but in fact storefronts come and go, while buildings remain. In the 21st century, when Slow Food, localism, craftsmanship, walkability, and placemaking are all the rage, a world focus on “iconic” towers seems oddly dated and literally out of place. The vast interiors on large floors with no operable windows and no connection to the ground are the opposite of natural ingredients, and the energy-hog, unsustainable and mass-produced curtain walls might be compared to GMOs. The world’s not asking for GMOs, but Monsanto makes lots of money from them, and in today’s world Big Money usually gets what it wants.


Photo of Dubai courtesy of James Howard Kunstler, who calls this Bowling Trophy Architecture.

“Chinese outbound tourists used to be impressed by futuristic buildings they encountered in places like Dubai and recently also London, but with more and more of such projects realised in Beijing… the pull factor of contemporary architecture for them is diminishing.”

— Wolfgang Georg Arlt, Forbes Magazine.

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Thank you, Mr. Godschalk




A revolution in street design is unfolding across America…. Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns is the revolution’s handbook. Its promise is clear: invest in urban streets that slow vehicles down and create shared spaces where pedestrians feel safe and comfortable, and your neighborhoods shall prosper. This encyclopedia of beautiful and profitable streets belongs in the hands of every designer, developer, and planner seeking to create sustainable development projects.

…In the final analysis, this book makes unique and valuable contributions both to urban design and to sustainable development. Creating more great streets means more people will be attracted to urban living, where they will be able to walk and bike more, reducing sprawl and air pollution from commuting by automobile, and resulting in smaller urban footprints with fewer negative climate change impacts. This is a revolution that benefits everyone.

Read the Review Online or Download a PDF

ULI Review

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Eclectic Good Kind


See it in the New York Times

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Separated at Birth

Separated at BirthPerot Museum of Nature and Science, Dallas, Texas, meet The Borg, Alpha Quadrant, Outer Space. People have long said that Thom Mayne’s buildings have all the human scale and attractiveness of menacing alien spaceships,* but “Why ask why?” — “Resistance is futile” when Starchitects come to town.

I used to joke about new buildings in New York looking like the Borg ship, including the black Maki building at Astor Place, and Mayne’s Cooper building 2 blocks south. Who knew that Mayne was actually looking to the Borg ship as architectural precedent?

* “41 Cooper Square appears in the 2013 U.S. television series The Tomorrow People as the headquarters of the Ultra agency.”
* “You think of the alien popping out of Sigourney Weaver’s stomach.”

An Eyesore of the Month at kunstler.com

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A Street Is A Terrible Thing To Waste — from New York State Conference of Mayors Summer Bulletin

Download the PDF

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Honestly, isn’t this building giving New Yorkers the finger?

432 Park Ave

THIS IS Robber Baron 2014 Style: Conspicuous Consumption literally taken to unprecedented heights. You can see it many miles away in Queens, the Bronx, and even Brooklyn, which means millions of New Yorkers have to look at it’s graceless form every day. You get some idea of the problem here (and to a lesser degree here).

And for what? One-hundred and twenty-five apartments on 89 floors (a number that will probably go down as Russian billionaires buy multiple units to combine into large pied-a-terres on the highest floors). Most of the occupants won’t live in the building (What New Yorker would want to live completely surrounded by undistinguished midtown office towers?) and they won’t pay much in the way of local taxes, but their empty nests (called “bullion pots in the sky” in London) will forever disfigure the skyline and steal sunlight as far away as Central Park.
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The Good Kind: The View From My Office

Bayard Building
Louis Sullivan, The Bayard Building, 65 Bleecker Street, New York, New York, 1899.

Looking out my office windows I see Louis Sullivan’s only building in New York City. After the jump, more views of Sullivan’s Bayard Building.
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Words To Live By

Sitting is the new smoking.

Speeding on city streets is the new DUI.

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“And tell me what street compares to Mott Street in July” — August

IF you don’t know this line from the Rodgers and Hart song Manhattan—you should (and here it is in a medley sung by Ella Fitzgerald that combines two Rodgers and Hart songs, Manhattan and I’ll Take Manhattan. I’m calling Mott today’s #StreetoftheDay because we’re having such fabulous weather in New York that you can’t walk down Mott without humming this song.

That seems to be the upside of climate change—we’ve been having a lot of beautiful days in spring, summer, and fall. Today’s temperature eventually climbed to 79•, but this is August, when brown, sticky days in the high 90s were historically common. And the humidity was only 35%, while there was hardly a cloud in the sky. We’ve had lots of days like this for years now, but with early, cold, and sometimes long winters. August is usually the worst time to be in New York, but not recently.

Mott 1
Mott 2
After the jump, more pictures of Mott Street (and a little history).
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The Cosmopolitans and #StreetoftheDay

The Cosmopolitans
From the Amazon Original Pilots and The Cosmopolitans comes the Street Design #StreetoftheDay: the rue Caron, leading into the place du Marché Ste.-Catherine, in the Marais. The shot is taken from the show.

Place du Marché Sainte-Catherine, 75004 More information after the jump:
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Ferguson, Missouri and the Cost of Sprawl

ENGINEER CHARLES MAROHN makes his usual insightful and interesting points in a post about Ferguson, Missouri on the Strong Towns blog (below). I happened to read the post just before reading an article in the Guardian that had many long quotes from Roger Scruton’s new book, The Soul of the World. I frequently disagree with Scruton, particularly when he’s talking about religion, but the quotes in the article are interesting. There’s one that I suspect Marohn would agree with, even though his (Marohn’s) points are mainly about money and economics.

“Everyone has a sense of desecration,” Scruton writes: “there are things everybody values which, when they are spoiled, are not just moved or destroyed, they are desecrated. Something that is vital not just to you but the world. People have this sense when they see their towns pulled apart and concrete blocks put in the middle of them.” That seems to apply to Ferguson too.

Marohn writes,

I’ve spent some time on Google looking at the area where the shooting took place and the QuikTrip that was the flashpoint for events that followed. While this is a fairly ubiquitous pattern of development here in the United States, there are some important things to note. What I see with Ferguson is a suburb deep into the decline phase of the Suburban Ponzi Scheme. The housing styles suggest predominantly 1950’s and 1960’s development. We’re past the first cycle of new (low debt and low taxes), through the second cycle of stagnation (holding on with debt and slowly increasing taxes) and now into predictable decline. There isn’t the community wealth to fix all this stuff — and there never was — so it is all slowly falling apart.

Decline isn’t a result of poverty. The converse is actually true: poverty is the result of decline. Once you understand that decline is baked into the process of building auto-oriented places, the poverty aspect of it becomes fairly predictable. The streets, the sidewalks, the houses and even the appliances were all built in the same time window. They all are going to go bad at roughly the same time. Because there is a delay of decades between when things are new and when they need to be fixed, maintaining stuff is not part of the initial financial equation. Cities are unprepared to fix things — the tax base just isn’t there — and so, to keep it all going, they try to get more easy growth while they take on lots of debt.

In 2013, Ferguson paid nearly $800,000 just in interest on its debt. By comparison, the city budgeted $25,000 for sidewalk repairs, $60,000 for replacing police handguns and $125,000 for updating their police cars. And, like I pointed out last week, Ferguson does what all other cities do and counts their infrastructure and other long-term obligations as assets, not only ignoring the future costs but actually pretending that the more infrastructure they build with borrowed money, the wealthier they become.


(full post here)

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Urban FedEx

A narrow, electric FedEx truck in SoHo, August 2014
A narrow, electric FedEx truck in SoHo, August 2014

THIS CITY-SIZED electric delivery truck is no longer made. Built by NaviStar (once known as International Harvester) with a grant from the Obama administration, it seems like exactly what our cities need to save energy and reduce pollution and congestion. Big Business prefers large trucks and one-way arterials to walkability and healthy people, cities, and climates. The experiment has been dropped, and Americans suffer.

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One of the Good Kind

Yardhouse, London, Assemble Architects
Assemble Architects, Yardhouse, London, UK
Yardhouse, London, Assemble Architects
Assemble Architects, Yardhouse, London, UK
Yardhouse, London, Assemble Architects
Assemble Architects, Yardhouse, London, UK
Yardhouse, London, Assemble Architects
Assemble Architects, Yardhouse, London, UK

A “social and collaborative work environment” in East London, built for £80,000. The architects clad the building with concrete tiles made on the site.

Rowan Moore, “Assemble: from pop-ups to grown-ups,” The Observer (5 July 2014).

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Bike Lanes in Europe

A few bike lanes in Europe, Street Design, The Secret to Great Cities and Towns, page 375

Bicycle Lanes and Cycle Tracks in Europe, “A Street Is A Terrible Thing To Waste,” Street Design, The Secret to Great Cities and Towns, page 375

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Maybe I was wrong: Pedestrians Gone Wild, The Movie

A few days ago I wrote,

Why? Because the pedestrians and cyclists are not killing the drivers: drivers going fast enough to kill any pedestrian they hit are causing one-hundred percent of the fatalities. If the drivers slowed down to truly safe speeds, they would hit few pedestrians (as we shall see), and kill almost none of them.

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Getting to Vision Zero

EIGHTY PERCENT of the residents of Manhattan don’t own a car. Most of the more than 45 million tourists who visited Manhattan last year didn’t bring a car with them. But even after all the positive changes on Manhattan streets during the Bloomberg administration, we still have auto-centric policies that only benefit a small number of people dominating the design of the public realm. The car is still king, and as long as it is, we will not get to the zero traffic deaths that Mayor DeBlasio has promised us.

Why? Because the pedestrians and cyclists are not killing the drivers: drivers going fast enough to kill any pedestrian they hit are causing one-hundred percent of the fatalities. If the drivers slowed down to truly safe speeds, they would hit few pedestrians (as we shall see), and kill almost none of them.

At the same time that the NYPD is putting 1,000 new police officers on the street to counteract a rise in murders and violence, 4 police officers were deployed today to ticket cyclists using a busy cycle track who didn’t stop and wait for the entire duration of long red lights on the Hudson River Greenway, even though for a good ninety percent of the time there were no vehicles crossing the cycle track. Riders stood astride their bikes in the hot sun, with no cars in sight, while policemen watched them to make sure they obeyed the law. Then the riders awkwardly started up again (the reason many states allow bike riders to use the rolling “Idaho Stop” is that it’s easier to go very slowly on a bike than to stop and restart).

The tickets are written in the name of safety, but it’s actually an old way of thinking that reflects a philosophy that accepts more than 35,000 traffic deaths in the US every year as the cost of keeping traffic flowing. The safety promoted by traffic engineers is part of an auto-centric paradigm that puts safety in a context in which it is understood that safety is balanced against allowing cars to go quickly and easily from here to there, without too many fenderbenders or deaths. That means that the free flow of the car comes before the convenience of pedestrians and cyclists.

The Swedish Vision Zero movement correctly points out that there are two ways to get to zero traffic deaths: separate the moving vehicles from the pedestrians, or, where cars and pedestrians can come into contact, slow the cars down. To that we can add that as long as we allow cars to legally drive outside the city at high speeds, we will have traffic deaths, no matter how many air bags are in the cars, or how far the pedestrians are from the roadway.

But our concern today is New York City, where getting to zero deaths requires that we fundamentally change the way we think about the city’s streets. Paris recently announced that with the exception of a few streets, all Parisian streets will have 30 kilometer per hour and 20 kilometer per hour speed limits—our equivalents would be 20 and 12 miles per hour. New York has taken the major and important step of changing the city speed limit to 25 mph, but that is probably just the first step in a process that will eventually make us more like Paris. That’s because a person hit by a car going 25 mph is still 10 times as likely to die as pedestrian hit by a vehicle going 15 mph. And, the driver going 15 miles per hour actually sees almost twice as much as a driver going just 25. Plus, the driver going more slowly also has more time to react, giving the slower scenario a triple advantage over the higher speed limit for saving lives.

The way to make places like the cycle track in the Greenway safe is to think about them differently than we have up until now. Instead of forcing everyone on the sidewalks and tracks to stop and wait during the long red-light cycle required for the left-turn process on the adjacent Joe DiMaggio Highway, the stoplights for the bicycle track and the pedestrian walk should give the advantage to the greatest number of people—the pedestrians and cyclists. The small number of drivers who want to cross to and from the highway should understand that when they cross they must go slowly enough that they won’t hit or hurt anyone. Experience in Europe shows that when cars and cyclists move at pedestrian speed, everyone can safely negotiate their way without accidents. One example is shown in the video of Seven Dials in London, seen below.

This seems strange to us, because we’ve all grown up in the age of the automobile. But in fact, this is what New York City streets used to be like, before what we sometimes call Organized Motordom realized that increasing car sales and oil sales depended on kicking pedestrians to the side of the road, so that cars could go faster (see the second video below).

The Bloomberg administration, and NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan in particular, began the process of turning this around when they reclaimed large chunks of roadway in places like Madison Square and Gansevoort Square for the pedestrian. Now that the DeBlasio administration has promised us Vision Zero—a wonderful pledge to reduce pedestrian fatalities in New York City to zero within ten years—it is time to build on that earlier work by expanding it to all places where the pedestrian and the cyclist should assume the privileged position previously given to King Car. Let’s stop ticketing cyclists on cycle tracks and transform the places where pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers have to share the road.

Seven Dials, London, ©2014 Ben Hamilton-Baillie. The cars, trucks, taxis, and tourists successfully manage mutual use of this shared space.

Broadway at Herald Square, New York, New York, 1907. Most of the pedestrians stay over on the sidewalk, but they feel comfortable stepping out into the street, which is also where they wait for the cable cars. Organized Motordom had not yet invented the term “jaywalker,” let alone pass legislation against it.

Babe Ruth and Harold Lloyd, Broadway Follies of 1927. We have met the enemy and he is us.

The difference between this 1927 video and the 1907 video is that drivers are demanding the right to go fast.

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