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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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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The 21st Century Will Be Different Than The 20th

We’re starting to see that people in the 21st century are rejecting many of the trends of the late 20th century. Just as architecture and urbanism in the second half of the 20th century were very different than they had been in the first half of the century, change is happening again. (One of those changes is dropping the ideological embrace of change for the sake of change.)

Here are a few Before & After word pairs. Please feel free to comment and suggest edits or additions.

UPDATE: I’ve made some changes in response to comments from the internet. Please keep them coming. Thanks.

Late 20th century

Early 21st century











Glass walls

Renewable materials





Machine made

Hand made

















Global market

Local economy

Constant growth

Smart Growth











Form giving

Place making



Streets for cars

Streets for people



Top-down planning

Tactical Urbanism


Slow Food

Big Pharma

Alternative medicine

Darwin / evolution

Neuroscience / mind body

Posted in Bicycle, Classical, Culture, Current, New Urbanism, Pedestrian, Street Design, Urbanism | 3 Comments

A Sidewalk Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

IN 1919, the car hadn’t yet conquered West 57th Street in Manhattan. Together, the sidewalks for the pedestrians were still significantly wider than the roadway, and the modern detritus of the traffic engineer was nowhere in sight.

West 57th Street in 1919, looking east towards 7th Avenue
West 57th Street in 1919, looking east towards 7th Avenue

MCNY image from “West 57th’s Hodgepodge Block,” by Christopher Gray

West 57th Street today, looking east towards 7th Avenue
West 57th Street today, looking east towards 7th Avenue

Also see Winslow Homer Walk, which would go next to the Vornado Building, the black tower in the After picture. You can download a PDF about Homer Walk here.

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Turn Lanes Are Anti-Pedestrian & Therefore Anti-Urban


A NEW YORK CITY MTA Bus almost ran me over this morning as I WALKED my bike in a crosswalk with a green light. Before he almost ran me over the driver honked at me, loudly, to tell me to get out of his way. And I repeat, I was walking in a crosswalk, with the walk light.

That’s what turn lanes and turn lights do. They give drivers the idea that they have a right to turn, without people getting in their way. And green turn lights and boldly marked turn lanes encourage drivers to go quickly and “take the lane,” because they are clearly in an environment set up for cars—just like in the suburbs. The bus was going at least 35 miles per hour, and so was a long stream of traffic behind him. If the bus had hit me while going 35 miles per hour, I would have almost certainly been dead. While walking with the light in a crosswalk, on an island where 80% of the people don’t own cars.

Earlier this morning, I was at the corner of Broadway and 56th Street and watched while pedestrians going both ways (across Broadway or crossing 56th Street) all had to wait after the turn light went green, giving drivers the go-ahead to turn left onto 56th Street. That should never happen in Manhattan.

FACT: There is an inverse relationship between a traffic engineer’s or DOT’s Level of Service (LOS) and the degree of walkability. That’s why in our petition to the US DOT we proposed a Walkable Index Number (WIN) for towns and cities instead of an auto-based Level of Service. WIN versus LOS equals walkability versus drivability.

Residents of Manhattan deserve better. So do all the tourists walking around the city. The only way Mayor DeBlasio’s Vision Zero pledge to reduce traffic fatalities in New York to zero will work will be to level the playing field and stop giving so much of the “space between the buildings” to the small number of people who drive in New York. Even the planet would be improved if we got over the idea that everyone has a God-given right to ignore the best transit system in America and drive into the city.

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“Buildings endure. Fashion rarely does.” (comment at the Design Observer)

THIS IS WORTH REPOSTING because it was through this post that I met my friend Robert LaValva, who founded and runs the New Amsterdam Market. I made the following comment at Design Observer in response to a post on the South Street Seaport that brought up the usual Disney comment (= Not Modernist). The Seaport is at the end of Fulton Street, a short walk from my office at the time:

MY OFFICE is at the corner of Fulton and Nassau streets. Sometimes at lunch I’ll walk over to the river and either on my way back or on my way to the river I’ll usually walk down Fulton. Each time, I’m struck by what a disaster Robert Moses’s urban removal on both sides of the Brooklyn Bridge was. It’s an enormous hole in a fabulous part of the city. Most of the massive postwar buildings from Water Street to the FDR Drive are almost as bad for the city.

The fact that you have to cross an architectural DMZ to get to the Seaport increases the Disney factor when you get there. But the difference between the poor urbanism of the Seaport and the bad urbanism of Mosesland and the buildings along Water Street is that the Seaport can get better over time, while the buildings in the urban removal section never will.

Urbanism always has to take time into account. You don’t like the stores and restaurants that are in the old seaport buildings this month? Wait a few years and they’ll be gone, replaced by something else. That’s true now more than ever, because the period of unprecedented spending we’ve been going through is over.

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Street Design in Salon

How cars conquered the American city (and how we can win it back)

Two quotes from the article by Henry Grabar:

John Massengale and I are standing in the middle of 1st Avenue at East 4th Street, in New York’s East Village, and he does not like the feng shui. He points to the thick, white lines in the roadway, directing drivers toward a left turn. “Automobile-scale striping,” he notes. “It’s telling you: ‘This is not a place for you.’”

Part instruction manual, part history, part manifesto, the book argues that it is the street, more than anything, that shapes the city. In traveling to cities around the world and interviewing residents, pedestrians and businesspeople, Dover and Massengale found a remarkable degree of agreement about which streets are nice and which are not. “If there is so much consensus on what makes a good street,” they ask, “then why are we still building so many bad and ugly ones?”

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Notes on New York Old & New


WE FREQUENTLY READ that New York is incomparably better today than 40 years ago. Yes and no. Crime is down, but buildings are up—to the degree that too much of a good thing is bad.

Fifty-seventh Street will soon have not only the tallest residential building in the world, but six others almost as tall are under construction or approved along the broad byway. They will make the street less pleasant to walk on, they look silly on the skyline, and they will make Central Park colder in the winter. The largest playground in the park will be up to 20 degrees colder at times because of the new buildings.

New Yorkers are finally catching on that these apartments mainly sell to foreign plutocrats for use as pied-a-terres and investment vehicles. Despite the wealth of the owners and the price of the apartments, they won’t produce much long-term economic benefit for the city, even though these towering symbols of conspicuous consumption will permanently diminish the view from the park and the experience of using the park.

Approximately 25 years ago, Jacqueline Onassis and the Municipal Art Society successfully led a campaign to cut down much shorter towers. Post-Bloomberg, the Real Estate Board of New York has more power than ever, and the MAS is frequently the cheerleader for projects they would have opposed when Kent Barwick was in charge. And we haven’t even talked about culture yet.

The owners of 31 West 57th Street have told Rizzoli that they plan to tear down the 1920s limestone building. There are already more places on 57th Street to buy $40 million condos than books. Soon there will be more towers and no bookstore.

Steinway Hall, the 88-year-old building down the block and across the street from Carnegie Hall where generations of famous and not-so-famous pianists have tried out pianos, was sold last year. So now there are more $40 million condos for sale than pianos too. The underground tunnel that connected Carnegie Hall to the piano showroom, allowing visiting pianists to walk over and select a Steinway for their concert has undoubtedly been locked. Carnegie Hall long ago kicked the artists out of the studios above the hall that had been there for decades so they could build their own tower.

Culture suffers. Non-resident plutocrats in towering fortresses are not a good trade for music and books. These visiting billionaires don’t create art, and it’s not even clear that they consume it. Conspicuous consumption versus the consumption and creation of art is one of the ways that New York is worse off today.

Maybe it’s darkest before the dawn. I read this quote today:

The new emerging paradigm is premised on a fundamentally different ethos, in which we see ourselves not as disconnected, competing units fixated on maximising consumerist conquest over one another; but as interdependent members of a single human family. Our economies, rather than being assumed to exist in a vacuum of unlimited material expansion, are seen as embedded in wider society, such that economic activity for its own sake is recognised as the pathology that it is. Instead, economic enterprise becomes aligned with the deeper values that make us human – values like meeting our basic needs, education and discovery, arts and culture, sharing and giving: the values which psychologists say contribute to well-being and happiness, far more than mere money and things. And in turn, our societies are seen not as autonomous entities to which the whole of the planet must be ruthlessly subjugated, but rather as inherently embedded in the natural environment.

Nafeez Ahmed, The global Transition tipping point has arrived- vive la révolution, The Guardian

Sounds like a good place for artists.


Posted in Architecture, Classical, Culture, Current, Music, New York, Pedestrian, Urbanism, Veritas et Venustas | 2 Comments

An Oldie But Goodie—sung to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”

COLUMBIA ARCHITECTURE PROFESSOR and architectural historian Ken Frampton was once asked about “the cult of New Urbanism.” It’s “ersatz kitsch colonialism for the modern middle class”, he said. Faced with a statement like that, what can one do except write lyrics to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” from The Pirates of Penzance?

The lyrics need the music to work — you can listen here.

We are the very model for the modern middle class is all,
They like their buildings regional, traditional or classical,
And that can mean that we might draw facades a bit symmetrical,
But that’s just what the people want, and no it’s not fanatical.

These creeps in academia should go on a sabbatical,
Until they learn the fallacy of public art too radical.
With architects like Frampton though, who want to be rhetorical,
New Urbanists just want to ask, Oh must be you didactical?

So Ken if you think what you say is clever and so apropos,
Then you should know the thoughts you sew are from a long, long time ago.
We do not want to be too rude, and certainly not crassly crude,
But oh we would be delirious, if you could be less serious,
And from your thoughts just let us go.

We have the best developers, we quote the towns historical,
From Charleston to Santa Fe, in order categorical.
We’re very well acquainted too with all things architectural,
We understand the orders well, and make them all grammatical.

For our plans we need to know the buildings typological,
At other times we like to make a building prototypical,
So if you want to criticize, just kindly up open your eyes,
We are the very model for the modern middle class is all!

A bonus song, after the jump—

“Me and Andy Duany”

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