Live from New York – 555 Hudson Street – Jane Jacobs’ House

555 Hudson - JJacobs

Live from New York – using an old iPhone

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“Ninety-eight percent of the people who hang out in our restaurants hate glass towers”

STEPHEN ALESCH, a partner at Roman and Williams and the designer of the Ace Hotel, Lafayette, the Breslin, the Boom Boom Room, the Dutch, and many more said that last night during a talk at the ICAA.

I don’t hate glass towers, but I understand those who do. More to come on why they’re never sustainable, even the LEED Platinum ones. (Hint: Our story begins when someone sticks a thin-skinned, free-standing glass tower up in the air, where it’s heated by the summer sun and cooled by winter winds.)

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Mystery Street of the Day

A STREET seen in Downton Abbey last night (in America), is a CGI creation. It’s a beautiful street, so I’m curious as to what’s real and what’s new. (PS: Answers below.)

The way that the arcaded building bumps out at the top of the hill (on a square?) is quite beautiful—click on the image and zoom in and you’ll see steps going up to the arcade. Also beautiful are the stone sidewalks and street with the stone and red-brick buildings (a change from the red-brick and tinted stamped concrete ‘bricks” that so many American cities default to when they want “streetscape”).

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Less Is More

SEEN ON PARK AVENUE at 63rd Street, an old Cinquecento and a Honda Odyssey “Minivan.” This photo has not been Photoshopped or altered in any way. #climatechange
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Historic Street of the Day

BROADWAY, Saratoga Springs, New York, back when you could have any color Ford you wanted (as long as it was black), and the Dutch Elm blight hadn’t decimated America. Photograph by Walker Evans.

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“All the great cities and towns are congested”

The Boulevard St. Germain on the Left Bank of Paris in 2011. One of the fabled streets of Bohemian Paris, today it is a street that many pedestrians flee.

“All the great cities and towns are congested” is an urbanist trope that needs to be retired. It comes, I believe, from arguing against traffic engineers when they talk about Level of Service rather than observing the best places.

I was in London the day their Congestion Zone started. I was staying in a hotel on High Holborn, a major through street that continues Oxford Street (or vice versa, depending on where you’re coming from). The Central Line on the London Underground was under repair and wasn’t running.

The day before the congestion zone started, Oxford Street and High Holborn were jammed even more than usual with buses, taxis, trucks, and cars. You could walk any distance long or short in either direction from Oxford Circus or Tottenham Court Road and know that walking would be faster than taking a bus. They were traveling along stuck nose to tail in traffic. The problem was the speed the buses were going, not time spent waiting for a bus.

That day traffic flowed like water in an oversized pipe, just the way traffic engineers like it. But that was because traffic was restricted, of course, not because of new and more efficient changes in the streets. The lack of traffic made walking the streets so pleasant, and such a pleasant contrast to the day before. It was the way cities should be. You could walk without being buffeted by noise and diesel smell, and you didn’t have to wait at every crossing for traffic to pass by.

MarlboroughHigh St 02
The High Street in Marlborough, a country market town in Wiltshire, England. In the last 10 years, many British roads have been overwhelmed by an enormous increase in traffic.

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Slow Street of the Day – Rue Norvins, Paris

rue Norvins Paris 18

Photo courtesy of Galina Tahchieva @ DPZ

ALMOST ALL STREETS IN PARIS now have speed limits of 20 or 12.5 miles per hour (30 or 20 kph). The rue Norvins in Montmartre was already slower  than that. Why? Not because of a city-set speed limit or police enforcement, but because of the natural design speed of the street.

The narrow roadway, the poor lines of sight, the rough cobblestones, the unforgiving stone bollards at the edge of the street, the lack of traffic signs (there’s only one, which limits cars to those belonging to residents between 3 pm and 2 am), and most of all, the free-range pedestrians in the middle of the street—these all produce a space that makes drivers unacomfortable driving quickly.

English authorities are introducing a number of shared space streets there. I haven’t seen most of them, so I can’t say much about the Sea of Change film that makes the proposal that new shared space streets in England are frequently unsafe for the blind and disabled. That’s obviously an important issue—if we are going to make slow streets that use slow speed and a lack of the traffic engineer’s separation of car and pedestrian to make safer streets, then we need to make them safer for everyone.
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“We are an evil people, and we deserve to be punished”

It was meant to trumpet an aspirational lifestyle and showcase the very pinnacle of luxury living in one of London’s most exclusive new residential towers, where penthouses are currently on the market for over £4m. But property developer Redrow’s latest promotional video has been pulled just days after it was launched online, having been subject to an online battery of ridicule and claims that it epitomises the dystopian nightmare of London’s iniquitous property market.

American Psycho’ property promo pulled after Twitterstorm

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The Problem Is Not The Starchitecture. The Problem Is What Gets Left Out Of The Discussion.


ALMOST AS SOON AS THE ACE HOTEL OPENED in New York City, the word spread among the cool tech kids and the young beautiful people that the Ace lobby was the place to meet and work. Blogs like This Is Going To Be BIG wrote about it, then Curbed, and soon it was in the mainstream media like the New York Times and New York magazine.** Nevertheless, years later, the cool kids still go there all day.

This contradicts a lot of what we’ve heard about architecture and design in New York for the last decade or so. During the time of the Bloomberg administration, New York City strongly and effectively promoted Starchitecture and shiny iconic towers as important parts of “dynamic, 21st-century cities.” At the same time, new Design and Construction Excellence policies focused on a specific vision of architecture that in the end excluded traditional and eclectic architects from city work, even though New York voters and residents would be surprised to hear that (and wouldn’t support that). A tour of places where the young and the hip hang out in the city shows that they like Classicism, Modernism, and a blend of the two, like the Ace. One could go further and accurately say that the iconic glass towers are the face of Global Capitalism, which becomes more and more unpopular among many New Yorkers of all ages. Contributing to that dislike are the Starchitect-designed, Manhattan mega-towers where non-resident plutocrats park flight capital in what London Mayor Boris Johnson calls “bullion pots in the sky” (aka, “iconic towers”).*

The Ace Hotel was designed by Roman and Williams, whose work ranges from eclectic places like the Ace lobby to traditional spots, like the restaurant at the Ace, just off the hotel lobby (none of Roman and Williams’ work is shiny modern). The Ace restaurant, called The Breslin, is genuinely traditional—many who go there probably think it’s an old New York restaurant, even though it was built in 2009. Like most Roman and Williams places, it has new furniture and fixtures with distressing to give them an “old” patina. It’s run by one of the hottest chefs in New York, and can genuinely be called hip.

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This One’s Better Than That One

Click on the photo to see a larger version.

ON THE LEFT is a bike lane in Munich. On the right is what is becoming one of the most common American bike lanes, the protected lane on a one-way arterial.

The one on the left is good urban design. The one on the right is engineering, specifically traffic engineering. It’s a good evolutionary step, but as you can see, making a street where pedestrians want to walk, or where drivers want to get out of their car and walk, was not a part of the design process. It’s a suburban-style, one-way transportation corridor, now with bike lane added. It is much better than what came before—a high-speed arterial where riding a bike was dangerous and unpleasant—but as we work towards more walkability and important goals like Vision Zero, let’s agree that it’s not where we want to end up.

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The Good Kind: The Cambridge Public Library

Cambridge Public LIbrary Rawn
IT WAS A PLEASANT SURPRISE to stumble on the Cambridge Public Library addition by Bill Rawn while staying in a B&B across the street.

Interesting that when you search online for photographs showing the addition and its relationship to the old Richardsonian library by Henry van Brunt (an excellent building in itself, restored by Ann Beha), all the architectural photographers have carefully separated the two, as though the other didn’t exist.

Below is another library by Rawn: Aalto meets the GSD. When Rawn first opened his office, he was one of the subject’s in Tracy Kidder’s House.
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Happy New Year

Here in New York, there are many things happening as 2014 comes to a close. For the last few weeks the streets have been full of demonstrators marching under the banner of Black Lives Matter. The terrible and tragic shooting of two policeman may have ended that, but if so, something else will rise up. Like the Occupy Wall Street marches, Black Lives Matter is a call for change and a call to be heard. It brings back a turn of phrase by President Obama that resonated with many but that still awaits full expression: We are the change we have been waiting for.

The people are coming together on streets that are changing too. Vision Zero, the call for zero traffic deaths in New York City, is just part of a change in how we see what urban designers call the public realm. For more than half a century, Departments of Transportation have taken most of the public realm for the use of machines rather than people. But there is a growing consensus that it should be reclaimed for city living. Vision Zero enabled our new city-wide 25 mile per hour speed limit, but that is probably just a step on the road to 20 miles per hour (and even slower in some places). Slower is both safer and better for city life.

When cars go 20 miles per hour or less on city streets, traffic deaths plummet and public life soars. No longer do we have to shape the streets for the safety of cars, a process that includes getting people out of the way of the automobiles. Instead, we can make them places where people want to be. Design public spaces where pedestrians are safe and comfortable, and you have streets that can be safely used by cars, cyclists, and pedestrians. They are also streets where drivers will want to get out of their cars and walk.

Under Mayor Bloomberg, the New York City DOT accomplished groundbreaking and important work that began a transformation of our city streets. Under Mayor De Blasio, we will go to the next step. Here’s to 2015 and change we can believe in.

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Separated at Birth 2014

Separated at Birth 2014 Continue reading

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What do we want? Change! When do we want it? Now!

Funny that this is the first image that came up when I Googled “What do we want? Change! When do we want it? Now!” “Funny,” because I’m writing about the AIA’s response to the common-sense proposal by Steve Bingler and Martin Pedersen in the New York Times Op-Ed “How to Rebuild Architecture,” and the only response I’ve seen so far is Aaron Betsky’s in Architect magazine, in which he writes in the first paragraph “With an ‘architecture critic‘ who has basically given up on reviewing the designed environment in favor of bizarre forays into fields such as so-called ‘evidence-based design,’ the Times has now for the second time in several months given its editorial page over to a piece on architecture that is so pointless and riddled with clichés as to beggar comprehension.”

I’ll get back to that, but first I’d like to talk about the lack of response so far from the AIA, and even the lack of comment from the magazine’s editor on this petulant attack in the magazine on the New York Times and its critic. Architect is the official magazine of the American Institute of Architects, and Betsky is a Contributing Editor of the magazine whose monthly columns come with a footer that says, “His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.”

As I’ve said, I thought the op-ed in the Times was both excellent and insightful, and I believe even the majority of architects might agree. Since the AIA is our leading professional organization, why has it published this extreme attack (“ballistic” and “incoherent” were how the former architecture critic of the Providence Journal characterized it) without even a short editor’s comment? If I were the President of the AIA, I would worry that the organization’s reputation would be tainted by it. Continue reading

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Buildings That Streets Go Through


More streets posted at
Also see Separated At Birth: One Santa Fe & One Western Avenue

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Separated At Birth: One Santa Fe & One Western Avenue

One Santa Fe One Western
ONE’S IN the Los Angeles Arts District, the other’s at Harvard Business School. In addition to the 40-ton Swords of Damocles overhead, they share little human scale* and little to even show that humans live there. The critics love both, but they seem to me to epitomize architecture that’s esoteric and out of touch.

The student editors at the Harvard Crimson ran a story called “Snap, Yo’ Momma’s Uglier than One Western Avenue.” The opening line said, “The decades-long debate over whether Mather House or the Leverett House towers holds the dubious distinction of being the ugliest residence on campus may have just been settled once and for all—thanks to the opening of One Western Avenue, Harvard’s newest, and perhaps most hideous, graduate school housing unit.”

Also in the Crimson:

The Boston Herald calls the design “risk-taking.” The Boston Globe calls it “aggressively dull, blocky, and abstract” with nothing to indicate the “joy of human habitation.” The New York Times calls it a “distinctive example of progressive contextualism.” [SAY WHAT?] Anupam Mishra, a second-year HBS student, calls it “the ugliest thing since Canaday.”

In the background of the Western Ave photo, you can see two of the towers at Peabody Terrace, housing for Harvard graduate students designed by Jose Luis Sert, former Dean of the university’s Graduate School of Design. People have called it the ugliest building in Cambridge for years. Twenty years earlier that title was held by the Harvard Graduate Center, designed by the former Chair of the architecture department at the GSD, Walter Gropius.

It’s surprising how badly Harvard and the GSD take care of Harvard’s graduate students, considering how much the university depends on its graduates, who donate about $2 million per day. Former Harvard President Larry Summers reportedly disliked the GSD for many reasons, including the fact that One Western Avenue is so ugly that Harvard couldn’t persuade a donor to put his or her name on the building.

This is not about style, or even the expression of technology and “modern” construction techniques (which are the opposite of “artisanal”). Instead, it’s about esoteric architectural ideology separated by 10 years and 6,000 miles producing “original” but ridiculously similar buildings with little ambition or desire to make places where people want to be.

* Look at the people in the photograph of One Western Avenue. Like ants to the slaughter, they are sitting in a non-place that’s only slightly cozier than the parking lot at a mega-mall. One Santa Fe is a QUARTER MILE LONG—and yes, simple and boring does become more and more boring the more it’s repeated.

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The Good Kind: Lincoln Road Garage by Herzon & De Meuron

1111 Lincoln Road
I’M NOT SURE this building comes across well in photographs if you haven’t seen the real thing—but it’s one of my three favorite buildings in Miami, along with Vizcaya and the Biltmore (in the public spaces, including the pool). It’s a parking garage at the western end of Lincoln Road (one of my favorite Miami streets) that’s also used for public and private events.
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