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.
AN OP-ED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES by the architect Steven Bingler and the architecture critic Martin Pedersen calls attention to an important architectural problem that has been swept under the rug for quite a while now. Architecture is a public art—we all interact with architecture every day—but it’s become a frequently esoteric and self-referential art that the public doesn’t relate to very well. As Bingler and Pedersen say, “We’ve taught generations of architects to speak out as artists, but we haven’t taught them how to listen.” And, “We’re attempting to sell the public buildings and neighborhoods they don’t particularly want, in a language they don’t understand.”
Air Street. London, UK
Alta Vista Terrace, Chicago, IL
Arcade Santo Stefano, Bologna, IT
avenue d’Iena, Paris, FR
avenue de l’Opéra, Paris, FR
avenue Foch, Paris, FR
avenue Montaigne, Paris, FR
Aviles Street, St. Augustine, FL
Avinguda Diagonal, Barcelona, ES
The psychotherapist Carl Jung wrote about everything, including traffic engineers:
All time-saving methods, to which alleviaton of traffic congestion and other conveniences belong, do not, paradoxically, save any time, but simply fill the time available in such a manner that one has no more time at all. The result of this is inevitable, breathless haste, superficiality and nervous fatigue with all the related symptoms like nervous hunger, impatience, irritability, distractedness etc…
I found this at a public transit blog. Also interesting is their most popular link, P.J. O’Rourke’s paean to the car in Give War A Chance (“…even if all these accusations are true, the automobile is still an improvement on its principal alternative, the pedestrian. Pedestrians are easily damaged. Try this test: Hit a pedestrian with a car. Now have the pedestrian hit the car back…. Which is in better shape?”).
STREETSBLOG published this interesting image of a 1914 proposal for Queens Boulevard from the borough’s Chamber of Commerce. They also linked to a recent project for the Boulevard by a group called Planning Corps. I hadn’t seen either of these projects before (although I know one of the founders of Planning Corps, and saw some of their base data), but it’s good to know that in both 1914 and 100 years later multiple groups and public processes came up with similar ideas.
We know the ideas are enduring and popular.* So, can we build them now?
Second, there are differences in how we might build it today. The belief that perhaps Organized Motordom isn’t always right gains more and more supporters, along with still-evolving concepts like Slow Streets and Shared Space. The conceptual images we made for Transportation Alternatives show slow lanes along each side of the boulevard that are very different than the ones shown above—or what would have been done until recently. The distance from the buildings to the center traffic lanes are similar (maybe even identical), but the Chamber of Commerce image still gives more room to the cars and less to the pedestrians, while the new images show slow-speed side lanes that cars, cyclists, and pedestrians will share. Also different in the new design are three types of bike lanes and “green” bike lane that functions as a low-tech stormwater management system.
“If you want to understand what’s most important to a society, don’t examine its art or literature, simply look at its biggest buildings.”
― Joseph Campbell
HANS MONDERMAN AND SHARED SPACE are all the rage, but the Italians starting making slow streets in the late 1960s without naming them. Rome and Bologna don’t have all the traffic-calming bicycles that Amsterdam and Delft have, but the streets in the Centro Storico of Rome are still shared-space slow streets, with very few of the signs and markings that make drivers comfortable.
Kean University, a state school six miles away from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, another public university, has announced that they will open the Michael Graves School of Architecture. According to articles in the New Jersey Record, NJIT is apparently trying to stop any nearby competition.* Princeton University has the only other architecture school in the state, but Princeton and NJIT draw from different applicant pools.
I wrote in the comments,
The Graves curriculum will add variety that is needed in architectural education. The only other school I know of that requires hand drawing for the first few years is Notre Dame, which also has the only Classical architectural curriculum in the United States. Because Notre Dame is supplying something other schools do not, the Notre Dame architecture school’s annual job fair has more offices in attendance than the school has graduating students, and all graduate students get multiple job offers.
The Graves school will not have a Classical curriculum, but since Graves is working on the curriculum it will be more open to pre-Modern architectural history than 99% of American architecture schools. That too should give its students an advantage that other schools like NJIT don’t have.
For the last 20 years, most architecture schools, particularly here in the northeast, have marched in an ideological lockstep. Looking at NJIT student work on their website, the school seems to be squarely within the norm. The work shows an academic approach that many architectural offices complain about, because the designs are so far from what most clients want today.
The problem is not the work, but the relative uniformity of what schools teach today, and how little it often has to do with professional practice. Many (like Graves, apparently) think the best way to bring more diversity to the system and therefore the profession is from outside the system, because the schools resist change. It’s common sense that if everyone is selling the same product, the institution that provides something different can produce students with easily marketable skills.
Sketching and working in CAD are different ways of working (both valuable) that use different parts of the brain. Sketching freehand, the designer connects most directly to his or her intuition. Inserting a keyboard and a monitor into the process makes it more mechanical and rational. There’s a place for both.
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.
- 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.*
- 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.**
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Starchitects and aspiring Starchitects 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, out of touch, and literally out of place. The vast interiors on large floors with no operable windows and little 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.”
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.
See it in the New York Times
Perot 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?