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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Quotes of the Day – Rem Koolhaas

Rem Koolhaas in Metropolis:

For a couple of years now,I have been … well, I don’t know what the best word is, but it is somewhere between bored and irritated, by the current course of architecture forcing people to be extravagant even if they don’t want or need that. I think there is a fatigue with “originality” now and an interest in the modesty of an artist.

I think there is a fatigue with “originality” now & an interest in the modesty of an artist.”


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The Three Best Entries in the World War I Competition are Classical

THERE’S STILL no resolution to the war in Washington over Frank Gehry’s design for a memorial to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Many who love Gehry’s work hate the memorial design,* which the Eisenhower family rejected. But Kansas Senator Bob Dole and Kansas Congressman Pat Roberts (What’s The Matter With Kansas?) are calling in favors and pushing to build the monument while there are veterans of the war alive to see the monument.

Meanwhile, all the entries in the first round of a competition for a national World War I Memorial in Pershing Park have been put online. The three best, in my opinion, are all Classical.

The most “innovative” and “inventive”—both favorite words in architecture today—of these is called Remembrance and Honor. An empty sarcophagus is lifted high and ringed by a crown of honor held aloft by Classical columns. The tower turns from the Washington grid to face the rising sun on Armistice Day:

Remembrance and Honor-sm Continue reading

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My Comment on CityLab: “What’s the Matter With San Francisco?”

POSTSCRIPT: When the highest profits in a market like New York’s come from 1) converting affordable rental housing into housing for sale that buyers use for investment and speculation, and from 2) building housing for the rich and the super-rich, there is no logical reason to say deregulating the market will bring affordable housing.

In a market that does not have a sudden imbalance of wealth and a large new group of buyers, the libertarian supply and demand argument might apply. But when a tiny group of people who own half the wealth in the world suddenly focus on a market that is already booming without them, the traditional supply and demand is no longer the problem. Every year, more and more affordable rentals are removed from the market, while building costs and land prices become too high to create new affordable rentals without subsidies, regardless of demand.


“What’s the Matter With San Francisco?”
“The city’s devastating affordability crisis has an unlikely villain—its famed progressive politics.”

Gabriel Metcalf, Jul 23, 2015, 184 Comments

I wrote:

Like some other commenters here, I think there is a fatal flaw in this argument. I have to qualify that by saying that I’m not familiar with the current housing market in San Francisco, but I am familiar with the market in New York City, where I live, and London, where my brother lives.

The fatal flaw is in thinking that the market will build housing for the middle class and blue collar workers and families if government just gets out of the way. New York and London show a different history, and I suspect there are similar factors at play in San Francisco.

The problem in New York actually started not with global capitalism, which distorts the local market in “global cities,” but with the widespread conversion of rental apartments to condominiums and co-ops, which began back in the 1970s. At that time, when the New York market was weak, there was no price difference most of the time between rent-stabilized prices and market-rate prices (of course there were exceptions, created by people who had occupied rent controlled apartments for decades, but they were the exceptions).

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Wowie Zowie: The Other Kind

BMW CSL: It looks like it will bite anyone who gets in the way.
Zaha Hadid: “I don’t do nice little buildings.”
Nike: Richness without order or harmony.

BEFORE the architecture world settled on “the Iconic building” as the best marketing term to sell shiny towers to the global super-rich, UK Deputy Prime Minister John Preston used to talk about “the Wow Factor” when talking about what London should build for the global market. Preston’s friend John Norquist—former Mayor of Milwaukee, former President of the Congress for New Urbanism, and the patron for a museum designed by Santiago Calatrava—says, “We forget how quickly ‘Wow’ can turn into ‘Bow Wow.”

A late entry, after the jump

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Bike Shares I Have Known

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There are two types of architecture—Category I and Category II

I’VE TWEETED this post by Witold Rybczynski, and I’ve put it on FaceBook. But I don’t think it’s getting enough attention, so here it is again: Category I and Category II, by Witold Rybczynski:

You can divide residential architects into two categories: those who design for their clients, and those who design for their colleagues. When the work of Category I is published, it is in mass market magazines such as Architectural Digest and Elle Decor; the work of Category II appears in professional journals and architectural monographs.

More here.

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Vester Voldgade – Our Street of the Day / A Street Design Supplement*

Vester Voldgade, Copenhagen. Looking north, across Ny Kongensgade.

VESTER VOLDGADE, KØBENHAVN (“West Rampart Street, Copenhagen”) is interesting both for its current condition and and its original state. It’s called “Voldgade” because like the boulevards of Paris, it was built where the old city wall stood (the French word “boulevard” comes from the word “bulwark”). As in Paris, allées were planted on the old ramparts, but in Copenhagen the result was different.

Parisian boulevards became tree-lined, symmetrical streets (planted in patterns composed of squares, the landscape architect Douglas Duany has pointed out). In an old photograph of a section of Vester Voldgade then called “Filosofgangen” (Philosopher Path), we can see that there was a street next to the tree-covered ramparts, with all the trees on the rampart side of the road in what looks like a naturalistic planting.

Filosofgangen (Vester Voldgade). Looking north in 1880.

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