The Good Kind: Notre Dame du Haut (Ronchamp)

Le Corbusier, Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France, 1954.

NOTRE DAME DU HAUT is a work of beauty and genius. To fully appreciate that you must visit the pilgrimage chapel in the northeast corner of France. Le Corbusier put aside his machine aesthetic and principles of mechanical standardization and embraced the genius loci of the remote hilltop. Inside and out, Notre Dame du Haut stirs the soul. Continue reading

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Inexpressive Interiors – The Other Kind

lernerloungeMANY ARCHITECTURE SCHOOLS in the northeast have become more like art schools than architecture schools. They emphasize conceptual “autonomous” architecture and personal expression, and neglect materials, construction, composition, context, placemaking… the list goes on and on. When I was on a design jury with Michael Graves about a year before his death at one of the most prominent architecture schools in the northeast, Michael didn’t know what to say, because none of the students were designing architecture as he knew it (and he didn’t want to criticize them). “They’re not drawing buildings, they’re drawing pictures of buildings,” said one of the other jurors. Like me, he had been a student of Michael.

Last week, I happened to see this renovated student lounge at Columbia, which looks to me like a Delta Airlines lounge at any airport anywhere in the world. And a few days before that I was at Le District, a “French food court” (oxymoron) advertised as “New York with a French attitude.” In reality, it has all the architectural charm of the upscale, tax-free shopping mall at Heathrow Airport.

The new, nearby Eataly—a place with wonderful food—isn’t even as good as the best parts of Heathrow. It just looks like many sub-urban shopping malls. That’s shocking for a place selling the Italian brand. No country in the Western world has as much man-made beauty as Italy, where even the choice of the table cloth and the placement of the silverware on a restaurant table are frequently a work of art.

In other words, at the same time that New York has suffered an invasion of “Iconic” buildings that are identical in character to iconic buildings in other centers of global capitalism, it has also suffered a rash of interiors of inexpressive corporate Modernism identical to many other non-places around the world. A surprising number of offices in New York have a very limited range of expression at their fingertips (or mice—this work is rarely hand-drawn, which is part of the problem).

There’s some irony that this comes at the same time as the locavore movement in food, which emphasizes local ingredients and character. Of course Eataly and Le District sell locavorism, Slow Food, and “terroir” at the same time that they sell us national cuisines from another continent in shopping malls. In 2016, global commerce makes strange bedfellows. Continue reading

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Monument of the Day

Firemen’s Memorial, Harold Van Buren Magonigle and Attilio Piccirilli, Riverside Drive at 100th Street, 1913.

THE FIRST YEAR AFTER 9/11, New York firemen started an unofficial memorial service at the Firemen’s Memorial on Riverside Drive. Small at first, it has grown into a large annual event. Today, the 15th Anniversary of 9/11, hundreds of New York’s Bravest turned out to honor the 343 firemen who died on 9/11. Each name and rank was read out loud, followed by the ringing of a bell. Moments of silence were observed at times like 10:28, when the first tower fell.

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Occupy Main Street

Great Barrington’s Main Street should be a place where place people want to get out of their cars to shop, eat, and socialize—under a majestic canopy made with tall trees. That’s not what State DOTs build, however.

This story originally ran in the Berkshire Record, following earlier stories written before the rebuilding (links below).

East Side of Main Street
East Side of Main Street, Great Barrington, Before & After
(Larger images below, with commentary)

AN OLD CHINESE PROVERB says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” In other words, it’s not too late to fix the economic and social problems the recent rebuilding of Main Street brought to town.

Great Barrington’s Main Street has lost the curb appeal that helped make it the Smithsonian’s best small town in America. “That’s just aesthetics,” some will say — including a few who contributed to the design decisions that make the new Main Street so ugly — but what real estate brokers and developers call “curb appeal” is not just aesthetics. It has economic value and social outcomes.

Let’s look first at the trees on Main Street. Studies by groups like the city of Portland, Oregon, the Yale School of Forestry and the National Association of Realtors show that majestic street canopies like the one Great Barrington used to have increase retail sales and real estate values. Surveys in which people walk around towns and cities recording the places they like and don’t like show that we are attracted to places with beautiful trees. The book The Happy City establishes that beautiful, mature trees increase our day-to-day happiness, and a growing body of research in cognitive science is beginning to record the data behind these effects.

Great Barrington's Main Street in the Nineteenth Century, when it had a classic American streetscape of mature street trees forming a canopy over the space.
Great Barrington’s Main Street in the Nineteenth Century, when it had a classic American streetscape of mature street trees forming a canopy over the space.

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NYC DOT Shared Streets: Lower Manhattan THIS SATURDAY

THE NYC DOT’S SHARED STREETS: LOWER MANHATTAN will take place Saturday, August 13  as part of the annual Summer Streets program. Frankly, it looks like the weather will not be good, but the rain will come and go, and this will be an important step towards the type of streets and street life we need in New York. Eighty percent of Manhattanites don’t own cars, and only twenty percent of Manhattan commuters get to work by car—but we continue to give most of our public realm to motor vehicles traveling at speeds that kill pedestrians.

That’s not the DOT’s fault. They have asked the Albany legislature for measures that would be better than what we have. But the evolution of the revolution is slow.

In the meantime, come support the Shared Space effort this Saturday. It’s August and the event is only two days away, but if enough CNU NYC and CNU New York members would like, we will have a meetup during the event. Write to us at or RSVP at

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Quote of the Day: “A uniquely frightening moment in American life”

“It is the essence of fascism to have no single fixed form—an attenuated form of nationalism in its basic nature, it naturally takes on the colors and practices of each nation it infects. In Italy, it is bombastic and neoclassical in form; in Spain, Catholic and religious; in Germany, violent and romantic. It took forms still crazier and more feverishly sinister, if one can imagine, in Romania, whereas under Oswald Mosley, in England, its manner was predictably paternalistic and aristocratic. It is no surprise that the American face of fascism would take on the forms of celebrity television and the casino greeter’s come-on, since that is as much our symbolic scene as nostalgic re-creations of Roman splendors once were Italy’s.”

Adam Gopnik, “Being Honest About Trump”

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Quote of the Day: Good Design

“As I’ve gotten older I’ve become less and less interested in novelty or cleverness as a really important attribute of good design. It’s disconcerting when you do this sort of work to see what kinds of things have truly endured, and a lot of the time they’re not clever.”

Michael Bierut, Pentagram (@ AIGA blog)

Leon Wieseltier on Modern Cliches, TATTOA

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Attempting to answer now and forever the claims of English cyclists that the Amsterdam streets like the one on the cover of “Street Design” are not “shared space” because they are “filtered” or….

Moved to streets-book.com

Seemingly every time I say something about shared space on Twitter, one or more English cyclists pop up to say “That’s not shared space.” Let’s settle this once and for all, without the character count limits of Twitter (which get worse when you add more people to the Tweet).

John Massengale

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Urban Design: The Good Kind & the Other Kind

WE ALL UNDERSTAND why so many normal, rational New Yorkers can act like NIMBYs—because we’ve all seen alien, intrusive development in New York like Billionaire Row and Atlantic Yards. Recent developments at the American Museum of Natural History brought this to mind, because multiple neighborhood groups are opposing the latest building proposal from the venerable, much-loved institution.

I commented on the situation in a discussion with a group called New Yorkers for a Human Scaled City (a good idea if ever there was one—if you wonder what that means, they will soon be showing the film The Human City on Thursday, May 26). One of my points in the discussion was that good urban design can sometimes be in conflict with preservation and conservation. After all every street and block in New York City (and London, and Paris, and Rome, for that matter) replaced open space and beautiful trees. When we built Grand Central and the Dakota, New Yorkers felt they were part of a city getting better and better. A problem now, as I mentioned, is that these days we think that what we’re losing is better than what we’re getting, with good reason. But there are principles of urban design, building design, and placemaking that we should look at when we discuss what to do in our cities. The current emphasis on “innovation” and bling has left many of use cold, but if we live here we are probably also city lovers. And cities are made by us. The “property rights conundrum” mentioned below is a red herring if what the museum does is also what is best for the city and its citizens.

Here’s my opening comment in discussion below. Scroll down if you would like to read more:

“There’s no question that the four teams of architects who worked on the museum (in order—Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould, Cady, Berg & See, Trowbridge & Livingston, and John Russell Pope—all good architects) would want the building completed as a solid rectangular mass, with the northern and western sides making continuous street-walls similar to the southern and eastern sides. That is what each showed in their respective master plans, and that follows traditional principles of architecture and urban design that have been increasingly ignored by the museum in the work it has done on the building since World War II. Looking at the complex from Columbus Avenue now, it resembles a person with their pants pulled down, exposing their backside.[see first photo in this article]”

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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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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 two stars, which means “Worth a detour.” 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.

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Continue reading at Better Cities and Towns (more photos)

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