Leon Wieseltier on Modern Cliches

IF you apply for a grant today and want to be successful, you’d better use the words “innovate” and “innovative” in your proposal. In art and architecture, words like “challenging,” “transgressive,” and “disruptive” are among the most used. So I was interested to see what Leon Wieseltier said to the Silicon Valley team that took over The New Republic (and eventually drove most of the employees to quit):

Wieseltier responded to Hughes with a message about stewardship. “We are not only disruptors and incubators and accelerators,” he said, seemingly mocking the language that Hughes and Vidra often used. “We are also stewards and guardians and trustees.” He went on, “The questions that we must ask ourselves, and that our historians and our children will ask of us, are these: How will what we create compare with what we inherited? Will we add to our tradition or will we subtract from it? Will we enrich it or will we deplete it?”

— Ryan Lizza, “Inside the Collapse of The New Republic,” The New Yorker

We should ask ourselves the same questions about our cities. Will future generations in London and New York thank us for all the innovative and challenging Starchitowers we built with so much fanfare?

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Form Follows Fashion

WE ALL UNDERSTAND that in architecture Modernism has promoted the expression of industrial materials. For one hundred years, its proponents have declared that Modernism is not a style but a rational, modern way of building.

Last week, I happened to see three new New York City parks that had curving benches like the ones in the photos above and below. It made me realize an obvious point I had somehow never thought of before: the visual character of Modernist landscape architecture is almost entirely a matter of fashion.

There is nothing in the nature of a bench that says “Curve me,” yet curving benches are the new landscape cliche around the country and the world. Why? Because they are not traditional.

Regional varieties of plants and trees are a good modern fashion, but of course traditional gardening was regional before the Industrial Revolution brought global trade, greenhouses, and then modern fertilizers. Where Modernism enters the picture is in planting the trees and plants in ways that don’t look traditional.

What does “traditional” mean in this case? In many ways it means “using placemaking”—using design to shape places where people feel comfortable. That can mean, for example, lining trees up in an allée that creates a majestic canopy that roofs an “outdoor room” between the trees. Or lining benches up and placing them opposite each other to shape a comfortably proportioned space. Neuroscience and modern cognitve research show that there proportions and geometries humans innately respond to, the same harmonic proportions used in Classical art, architecture, and music for millennia.

Arranging benches like the ones above are the opposite of placemaking. Instead of shaping space, the benches create a two-dimensional pattern best seen in the landscape architect’s drawings. It’s not surprising that if you make a Google image search for benches like this, you won’t see many people sitting on the benches.

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We Moved

To the Broadway Chambers @ 277 Broadway, on the corner of Chambers Street—Cass Gilbert’s first building in New York City. Here’s the view from my desk:

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The Best Smelling Lobby In New York

220 Church St lobby
YOU CAN FIND some of the best bread and pastries in New York in this Tribeca office building lobby—and in the year 2016, that’s saying a lot.

The story is that a New Yorker who’s roamed the world learning how to bake—including a stint as head baker at The French Laundry*—also comes from the family that owns the building. When they renovated the building and made 40 Worth Street the main entrance, the lobby was closed off. The owner of the Arcade Bakery reopened it for his own use.

The Arcade Bakery has wonderful food in a wonderful space, refitted by the Workstead Group. In the Michelin system, I’d give it three stars, which means “Worth a trip.” The Chocolate Hazelnut Danish is the best chocolate pastry I’ve ever had.

220 Church detail

PS: The Good Kind, from Workstead.

* Once thought of by many as “the best restaurant in the world.”

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New Rules for the New Year in New York

  1. Any new building in New York City taller than the Empire State Building must be more beautiful than the Empire State Building.
  2. Any buildings receiving public subsidy, tax benefits, or increased FAR must be approved by the local Community Board, after public hearings sufficient for gathering local opinion.
  3. The old Penn Station shall be rebuilt, unless something better is proposed. In this case,”better” means mean functionally better and more beautiful, not more “of our time,” because in our time that seems to mean whatever was taught in architecture schools fifty years ago.


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To Stop Pedestrian Deaths NYC Must Change How it Builds Streets


November 13th—Friday the 13th—marked the 13th day in a row that a pedestrian died on a New York City Street, all killed by cars or buses going too fast. They were among the 19 pedestrian deaths in the city last month—basically, one person lost for every business day. These fatalities occurred because despite all the progress New York has made since Mayor de Blasio and his DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg signed the Vision Zero Pledge in December 2013 (more on this below), most of our city streets are still seen primarily as transportation corridors for cars and trucks.

Until we prioritize pedestrian safety over traffic flow, we will never get to zero deaths for pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, or their passengers. But the good news is that when we do make streets that are safe for pedestrians, traffic still flows—and it becomes easy to design streets where people can want to get out of their cars and walk, enjoying public life. Which, after all, is what city life is all about. We don’t have to choose between pedestrian plazas in Times Square and suburban-style arterials. We can have our cake and eat it too.

A little history is relevant here: for decades, our city streets have been controlled by the DOT—the Department of Transportation— which employs traffic engineers and transportation planners who have traditionally seen their job as making traffic flow quickly and safely. They use a federal grading system that grades street quality according to the “Level of Service” (LOS)—a measurement of how well traffic moves.

Anything that impeded traffic flow was a problem to be identified and eliminated. Trees became known as Fixed Hazardous Objects (FHOs), because they damage cars that hit them. Standard practice in traffic engineering is therefore to confine trees to a Vegetative Containment Zone kept away from the vehicles.

People are called MHOs—Moving Hazardous Objects. They also slow down and damage cars that hit them, and so they’re kept away from the cars too.

Continue reading at CityLimits.org
Continue reading at Better Cities and Towns (more photos)

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For those who celebrate Christmas

It doesn’t get much better than this:

High Perpendicular English Gothic, Renaissance woodwork, a Rubens altarpiece, and this:

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God is in the details

Mariaplaats_ 097
Mariaplaats, Utrecht, the Netherlands—After (photo taken in 2014).

I’m working on a project in Connecticut where the team is proposing a “Slow Zone” in the center of town. An engineer on a project is a little worried about some of the details I’ve proposed. He wrote, “I think we all agree that architects and planners dream, and I am a dreamer, but engineers work out the details—that’s where the devil is!”

I replied,

Any designer works out the details. Architects and urban designers use design to solve problems. That’s very different than applying rules.

So for architects, as Mies Van Der Rohe said, “God is in the details.”

Where the devil lies is in the criteria for judging the details. The criteria for the DOT’s Level of Service get in the way of pedestrian safety, walkability, and beautiful streets. That’s why NACTO and the CNU / ITE transportation committee are in the process of revising the criteria—to open possibilities for more variety in the details.

DOT’s have been telling us for years that wider streets are safer. But we now have statistics that show that means “safer for the car to go fast—in the context of 33,000 deaths a year.”Wider is more dangerous for pedestrians, and all we have to do to stop killing ourselves is to slow cars down to 20 mph when there are pedestrians around.

In Street Design we used a traffic engineer’s Walkability Index and renamed it the Walkable Index Number. So we had WIN versus LOS for walkability and placemaking.

If the Connecticut DOT is unable to be flexible enough to allow the making of great places where both cars and pedestrians will be safe (and I don’t know that they’re not), that’s when the town should consider taking over a few blocks of Main Street.

In the meantime, of course, NACTO and CNU / ITE are in the process of revising DOT standards, and eleven American cities have now adopted Vision Zero. [X] could be the first town to adopt it. Vision Zero simultaneously saves lives and gives the legal justification for not always following DOT standards.

Whether or not the town wants to do this is up to the town. But support is obviously very strong.

Mariaplaats, Utrecht, the Netherlands—Before (circa 1965).
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Places Where People Want To Walk

Lafayette Street, looking south from Bleecker Street.:

MY COMMENT ON BIKE PORTLAND’s Bike-friendliness and walk-friendliness are actually pretty different, study says

I’ve only been to Portland twice, mainly downtown. There was no bike share then, so I’ve never ridden a bike in Portland. In other words, I’m not claiming to be an expert on the state of cycling in Portland.

What I do know, as an urban designer and street designer, is that a lot of work on bike lanes around the country has been about adding bicycle lanes to transportation corridors. Transportation corridors are first and foremost about traffic flow.

Many of the transportation corridors where bike lanes have been added are no better for pedestrians after the changes than they were before. Pedestrians want places where people get out of their cars and walk, not non-places where cars flow through, taking most of the space and creating danger. We had 33,000 traffic deaths last year. I don’t know how many of those killed were on bicycles, but obviously if a speeding car hits a cyclist, the cyclist loses.

The safest streets are streets with no cars. The second safest streets are streets where cars are going under 20 mph. And streets where cars go under 20 mph are also streets where it’s easy to make places where people want to get out of their cars and walk.

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V&V Redux: The Most Beautiful City of the Twentieth Century


Santa Fe, New Mexico is the most beautiful city of the 20th century. This simple statement requires some explanation.
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My First iPhone Photo

Camden Harbor
Camden, Maine

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Live from New York

Summer 2014
Greenwich Street on a hot summer day

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Separated at Birth: Architects Say The Darndest Things

ARCHITECTS would describe these as “original,” and perhaps even as “unprecedented reality”…

Paris, France
Paris, France
London, England

Separated at Birth 2014
Separated At Birth: One Santa Fe & One Western Avenue
Separated At Birth

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The Good Kind: The Bradbury Building

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The design of streets where people walk should begin with true 20 mph speed limits & Vision Zero principles

#20isplenty #VisionZero

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QB Redux: I think that I shall never see…

WHEN I SHOWED A TRANSFORMATION FOR QUEENS BOULEVARD that included trees over the subway beneath the wide street, some people naturally had some doubts about how well the trees would grow. But look at these trees above the similar “cut and cover” subway at Broadway and 86th Street in Manhattan. “Cut and cover” is a construction process in which the street is dug up, the tracks are laid, and then the street is put back like a roof. I haven’t examined the drawings for either Queens Boulevard or Broadway, but the details should be similar.

Imagine how much better Broadway would look if the trees chosen had come from one of the great street tree species that form majestic canopies (they weren’t), or if the trees had been properly planted for healthy and mature growth (ditto). That means not only giving the roots enough room to spread out, but also planting trees like sycamores in conditions that allows their roots to intermingle, because we know now that many of the great street species share disease resistance through their roots. And today we have systems like Silva Cells for conditions where we know soil compaction and root spread can be a problem.

Now imagine how much worse Broadway would look without any trees…

BWAY_7656 BWAY_7657

Made in  the shade at the corner of Broadway and West 86th Street, perfect for a hot August afternoon.

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Exhibition Road Redux

“Shared space schemes labelled ‘dangerous’ in Lords report”

“A new House of Lords report has called for a moratorium on any new ‘frightening and intimidating’ shared space schemes”

Architects Journal

But a House of Lords report says it doesn’t work well enough.

WE GAVE Exhibition Road a mixed review in Street Design. I visited Exhibition Road a few times and found it over-designed, a frequent problem for 21st century streets. I agreed with our friend and colleague Hank Dittmar, whom we quoted on the subject of Exhibition Road: “Only the parked cars look comfortable.”

It’s in the news this week, because it may be the most famous Shared Space in Britain, at a time when “Shared Space” is the buzzword of the moment for High Streets (Main Streets) around the country. Most local politicians in the UK seem to know about Shared Space, and now a member of the House of Lords has come out with a report that labels them “dangerous”—and in fact many UK Shared Spaces do seem dangerous, for at least two reasons: cars driving on them routinely go faster than is safe for spaces where pedestrians, cyclists, and cars are sharing the road; and they are frequently unsafe for the blind.

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