Thursday, March 22, 2007
And so it begins ...
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
The second semi-annual Slouching Towards Alphaville Award goes to Zaha Hadid's Expocentre exhibition halls and residential tower project in Russia
It's cold. It's winter. It's minus 20 degrees, an arctic wind is blowing in from the Russian steppes, and you're walking on the biggest street in Moscow. Above you in the swirling snow loom three towers that increase the wind chill factor to minus 100 degrees. All the vokda in Russia won't fix this picture.
Haha Hadid? No no Nanotchka! (more wind-blown photos here)
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Cities need both order and richness —
but most buildings of the last 50 years have only supplied one or the other. Many of the glass and metal office boxes built in Manhattan in the 1950s and 60s had plenty of order but got their richness from the older buildings around them — and from their contrast with those buildings. Recent architectural fashion has been to design gridded boxes with folds, like little origami sculptures made with graph paper. That doesn't do much for the order of the city, particularly because there's no human scale in the grid or the folds, and richness requires a scale we can relate to. What would be a charming little paper object at 50 stories becomes an overbearing presence on the street.
Other buildings, like Frank Gehry's great civic monument in Bilbao, have richness but little order. There's plenty of order in the old masonry city surrounding the museum, however. As with the graph paper boxes, the contrast between the gleaming Titanium sails blowing in the wind and the sturdy masonry buildings on th old streets provides richness.
As these simplistic Modernist buildings — rich or ordered, rather than both, like most of the older buildings — become the exception rather than the rule, they diminish our cities rather than enrich them. They're parasites that need the contrast of the old buildings to make good streetscapes.
When I was young, midtown Manhattan was primarily made up of old masonry buildings, 10 to 15 stories tall on the avenues, and lower on the side streets. The occasional Skidmore, Owings & Merrill gridded glass box added a little variety and interest.
But I was on Madison Avenue in midtown a few days ago, and I couldn't help notice what a dreary place it's become, with one glass box after another, now usually much taller than 15 stories. The buildings made a boring place for pedestrians.
Contrast that with lower Fifth Avenue, which is dominated by century-old stone buildings, often with shiny new storefronts. These buildings, constructed as utilitarian loft buildings, have both richness and order. And human scale, and weighty facades with contrast of light and shadow that add the appearance of mass to the buildings and help create a strong sense of spatial enclosure for the street.
Of course there are other factors that make the streetscape interesting and a good place to walk. The older buildings are lower, so there's more sunlight and less congestion on the sidewalks, and the modern storefronts in the old buildings are interesting for passersby. It all makes lower Fifth Avenue a much more pleasant place to be than the new, glass midtown.
New Urban Myths Numbers 1 & 2: New Urbanism is just for the suburbs; New Urbanists are just a bunch of traditional architects.
THE PRINCIPLES of the New Urban Charter work at the scale of the region, the city, the town, the neighborhood, the block, the street, the building, the farm, the forest and the rural preserve. You can find the text of the Charter here.
The New Urban Transect works from the Wilderness, T-1, to the Urban Core, T-6.
Here's a recent New Urban design, for the tallest building in Philadelphia. It's one of thousands of T-6 and T-5 New Urban projects, and as you an see, it's not traditional. New Urbanism is about making walkable, sustainable places, not style.
Sunday, March 18, 2007
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
MATERIALISM is the marvel of the modern world. With capitalism, modern science and engineering transformed the world in two centuries. First in the west, and now all over the world, we have gone from agrarian societies to the world of the internet, air travel, a cure for cancer and global corporations.
Most of this has been for the good, but materialism is now bumping up against its limitations. Our machines have caused global warming. Our chemicals have poisoned the oceans. Our emphasis on the material has produced angst and alienation.
We still hear pronouncements that life in the 21st century is about "being modern" and the expresson of technology. That was the second half of the 20th century. Now, we need to get beyond the limitations of materialism to the understanding that life holds more than that.
In my life, modern medicine has done a great deal for me: without modern science, I would be blind or even dead by now. But it was homeopathy, not modern medicine, that cured my Lyme Disease — the antibiotics doctors prescribed eventually killed the Lyme spirochetes but made me sicker than the spirochetes. Only homeopathy was able to treat both the spirochetes and the after effects of the antibiotics.
Homeopathy can be used and prescribed on a mundane, “scientific” basis. Two-hundred years of trial and observation have produced diagnoses that work, with no theory necessary to explain why (despite that, the American Medical Association says homeopathy is harmless but useless, because their theories don't agree — an unscientific pronouncement if ever there was one).
The most effective homeopaths may talk about "subtle energies," something the AMA is unable, and unwilling, to corroborate. But modern physics is beginning to explain them, while leading us back to the traditional religious idea that everything is connected. Through sub-atomic energy, physicists now say. It's related to Christopher Alexander's concept of "life" in The Nature of Order.
That's what the early 21st century is about.
Eat food. More vegetables. Less meat.*
Is it coincidence or convergence that the New Urbanism, the Slow Food movement and Peak Oil are all coming together at the same time?
A few days ago, I picked up an interesting magazine I'd never seen before, The Valley Table, about regional farming in the Hudson Valley. Of course local produce and farmers' markets are very hot, because local produce produced by traditional methods tastes best. But when oil prices go up, as they must, we'll need our local farms. If peak oil harms the global economy, as it will to some degree, we'll need to strengthen our local ecoonomies too. And the 2006 book of the year, The Omnivore's Dilemma, brilliantly tells the story of how much industrial agriculture is hurting our food and our health. Lucky for us local farms are already coming back.
Faced with a shortage of farmworkers and increasing prices for farmland, due to development pressure, one of the farmers interviewed in The Valley Table doesn't feel so lucky. "You think it's a problem fighting a war for oil?" he asks. "Wait until we have to fight a war for food."
The world Jim Kunstler describes in The Long Emergency sounds like a place where we're already headed: Think Global Act Local, Small Is Beautiful, Slow Food and the New Urban development pattern of walkable towns and cities surrounded by rural farmland are what we're going to need in the future.
* That's the way I remembered the first paragraph of an article Pollan recently wrote for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Unhappy Meals. It turns out the real text said, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." By "food" Pollan means real food, as opposed to the altered food products filling most of the shelves in supermarkets.
Saturday, March 17, 2007
WHAT we say with art is as important as how we say it. I'm afraid I think the message from the writer and director of Babel wasn't worth listening to.
One tagline from the movie was, "If You Want to be Understood...Listen." Another, more accurately representing the movie, is "Tragedy is universal." The message from the movie is so bleak that one gets the idea that its auteurs think it's impossible for us to listen to one another, and that we're doomed to tragedy, no matter what we do.
That's not the message of the old testament story from which the movie takes its name. Despite the harshness of many of the old testament tales, in the end the book is a story of the power and love of God, which promises hope.
The tragedy of Babel comes from within, in the twentieth century's adolescent-like fascination with the hopelessness of the individual. In the twentieth century, there were some movies which provided some insight into that condition. Babel does not. Babel says we should listen to each other, but not in the way that convinces us the authors believe we would be any better off if we did.
In the original story of Babel, people were separated by different languages, but international communication isn't really the problem in the movie. Many of the main characters do stupd things that lead to tragic consequences. That seems to be the director's and the screenwriter's view of life.