Interview with Aaron Betsky

I heard Aaron Betsky speak at his book-signing for False Flat. Here's an insightful interview from Architect, where he talks about how landscape affinities shape our inclinations in building for the public realm.

Local business, local benefits

I always had a theory that local businesses bring more back to the community, if not economically, then at the very least, by building social capital. But here's a small study that suggests that there are definite economic benefits from supporting local businesses.

A manifesto to adopt

Finally, someone did it. Legalize Neighborhoods Again! is a great manifesto. It outlines historical reasons for the growth of suburbia and principles to adopt. It identifies the most immediate causes and solutions to break the bad pattern of growth. I also like that it recognizes traffic engineers as master problem solvers once constraints are lifted, instead of chronic do-badders. But I would say it doesn't go far enough in emphasizing places as anchors in a neighborhood though it's definitely getting there.


It's not all talk

Having public places to socialize with friends, neighbors, or even strangers is imperative to sustaining the health of a society.

To make that point, two people are riding their bikes across the country right after this coming election, heading for public places of all types: malls, town squares, bowling alleys, etc. So if you see Liz or Bill riding their bikes around in your neck of the woods, do stop to talk to them.


Why Dutch Design Is So Good - Part II

It's hard to say that the Dutch are modest about their design sensibilities (excluding Koolhaas) with a lecture title like "Why Dutch Design Is So Good" but Aaron Betsky and Adam Eeuwens, the authors, along with Irma Boom, the book designer, managed to convey some of the organic, non-ego drive in their presentation on their survey on contemporary Dutch design, False Flat at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum last night.

The book focuses on all aspects of design - graphic, architecture, planning, industrial, etc. One major theme ties the Dutch design process to the physicality of the Netherlands - with its grid system and human-constructed environments.

Some generalizations were made about the different between Dutch and American design. In the Netherlands, you have so little space the freedom is in the small, meaning you create options within many confines. In America, you have so many options you pull from everything.

But why, then, is there an incredible homogenization of American design (look at the physicality of their towns and cities) when there is such innovation with Dutch design? What was not expressed at all was the very obvious difference in value systems, the system that drives the way the Dutch get things done and Americans get things done. The physicality of the Dutch landscape seems to be a outcome of their societal priorities about defining a certain standard of living - everyone should have a place to live, even immigrants, a job, and access to public services such as health care. Cars are not a priority. The grid system was a way of ensuring that change in the cities and towns could be quickly understood by everyone. not to facilitate vehicular travel. Dutch exurbs and new villages reflect this societal priority, expressed through their design.

"False Flat" refers to the idea that while bike-riding through the Netherlands, the journey feels flat when really you're biking and up and down over dikes, and in some cases actually ending up at a higher elevation. Dutch design occurs through that very process and was typified by the presentation by Irma Boom, who, with a camera on the podium and no powerpoint slides, illustrated her participaton in producing the book by showing the first Phaidon contract that she rejected, the proposed book size and paper she despised, and how by meandering through other options, arrived at the organization of what is now False Flat.

I can't imagine an American thinking that this type of presentation would be a good idea. I love the Dutch.


A larger context for third places

A nice brief in the Seattle Times on the importance of socializing with neighbors and the necessity of physical places that are condusive to community.


Fascinating Pittsburgh

My fascination with Pittsburgh, extraordinarily difficult to comprehend by New Yorkers, was further fueled by this article about the city's strategy to revitalize its cultural district. I've never been there, but to me, Pittsburgh seems to hold all the right ingredients to become a great city.

Why Dutch Design Is So Good

I've often asked myself the same.

At the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum


October 25, 2004, 6:30 p.m.

Book Designer Irma Boom and Co-Author Adam Eeuwens will be at the Cooper-Hewitt to sign copies of their new book published by Phaidon Press. Despite the posted info, it is a free event. In that case, I'll be there!

An inside look at architecture

I have been asked many times over the past year about what it's like to work for an architectural firm (caveat: I work with them, I don't work at one) and all I know about are long hours and little recognition. What does it feel to invest your career at a certain firm? InsiderArch, still in development, but in working shape, can help you out.

Still in school? Read about the every day life from the perspective of an architecture student.


Reviving D.C.'s Retail Center

The comments from shoppers in this Washington Post article can say a lot about what will bring people downtown.

"Gaskins asks her 17-year-old daughter to take the Metro into the city to browse the aisles at Hecht's and H&M... Retailers "put better stuff downtown," Gaskins said after leaving H&M with her daughter on a recent shopping trip."

as Andre Turman, an 18-year-old District college student said of downtown shopping, "It's not like a mall. It's pretty limited."

Lisa Branco, a 33-year-old consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. who works in the District, says she "hates the mall." During her lunch hour, she stops at the new Ann Taylor Loft on 7th Street NW. "This is much better than driving an hour, parking the car in a garage and battling the teenagers," she said.

Wendy Elsasser, an Alexandria resident who works downtown for the federal government, said walking the streets there "used to be scary." Now "it's turning around," she said."

Retailers still sound tentative, but they could partner with transit officials to help make Metro stations "lead" shoppers to stores with vendor stands or displays, and merchants can partner to create lunch-time, after work, or weekend events as incentives. What key stakeholders should recognize is that the vitality of the downtown depends on thinking beyond the boundaries of the store, or street or district. Public spaces, all the areas that tie the downtown together, should be thought about by the larger group. When all this happens, this center, a mere 1/5 of the square footage of the mall at Tyson's Corner, will pack a real punch.

We'll pay you to ride the bus!

Another reason why people living in the Pacific Northwest seem to be so much more ahead of the game than the rest of America. Here's a great example of how government agencies can partner and use incentives (or whatever you want to call them) to enable smart land-use planning. A hundred dollars a month is a small price for long-term sustainability.


"Soaring", here we come

I guess I didn't expect anything more than this when combining Lebeskind, Arad, Calatrava and Ground Zero.

Miss Representation's take


Great Public Spaces

I've been getting a big kick commenting on the Great Public Spaces site at Project for Public Spaces (full disclosure, I work for PPS). Once I started, I couldn't stop. It became a fun exercise forcing me to think about what actually matters in a public space, why we gravitate towards one space over another, and how certain spaces continue to wow us with their pure existence, without all the baggage of philosophy or social science.

The more I failed to find spaces that I wanted to comment on, the more I realized that this list could use some serious updating. First, what sprung to mind were the personally most comforting places. What about Hoxton Square in East London? Controversial as it might be in the gentrification and displacement debate, the highly neglected park is undeniably the most sociable place. The surrounding pubs and hip boutiques are relaxed enough to allow users spill out into the square, taking with them whatever makes them more comfortable, whether it is a chair or a pint.

Mostly, I'm surprised that neighborhoods in some of the biggest cities in what are still considered developing countries aren't listed - Sao Paolo, Rio, Bogota, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Cairo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, just to name a few. (Not that I've been to all those places). These non-Western cities tend to deal with density, people, sociability, and public spaces the best because space is so valuable that any free space is treated like very important public space.


Reusing big boxes

At the risk of giving big box developers an excuse to keep building their monoliths, this site details very cool case studies on how big boxes, once dead, can have a second life.


Seniors set the trend

The baby boomer generation will only continue to have a huge role in determining land use in the country. At one end of the spectrum, seniors are flocking to urban areas, rather than gated golf communities.

At the other end of the spectrum, a new movie "This is Nowhere" tags along a (growing) group of retired seniors traveling around the U.S. in their RVs. Where are they heading for - National parks? Scenic byways? Nope, they're heading out to Wal-Mart parking lots. (Wal-Mart Promotes Parking Lot Living)

This is only the beginning. I hear that it will be 2012 before the baby boomer ignited real estate boom starts to fall off.


Wanted: some room to move

The recent rezoning proposal for Williamsburg-Greenpoint leaves the community in a tight situation. Change is inevitable, the waterfront is badly underutilized at the moment, and there's a lot of housing and industrial pressures in the city at the moment. But it seems the Department of City Planning has decided that Williamsburg-Greenpoint is just another upscale bedroom community waiting to happen.

What I would like to ensure is that there are affordable housing provisions in the higher density, primarily residential zoning in the proposal. I'd also like to kick in some more mixed-use, light on the light industrial (we don't need more Acme Smoked Fish places). I accept the vision of Greenpoint as a great neighborhood that many people will want to live in, 10 years down the line. But how about making sure that those with roots there now also get a chance to be a part of the future?

New New New Urbanism

There's hope yet. This Philly Inquirer article shines an optimistic spotlight on John Norquist, the new president of the Congress for New Urbanism. At a recent talk, he espoused growing urban cities better, instead of focusing on suburbs, and did not even mention the exlusive New Urban communities of Seaside, Florida.

People view New Urbanism with skepticism reserved for elites, and rightly so, for New Urbanists have traditionally been an incredibly elite group. (Recent posts on a list-serve hosted by Andres Duany, considered one of the primary founders of New Urbanism, were titled "vernacular invention," "classists in paradise," and the most puzzling "elephants and shrews", which was really a discussion about cars vs. transit, though one would never guess.) But appointing John Norquist is a new light in the intellectual fog.

For example, I really agree with the idea that fighting chains in dense downtowns is not a viable solution in a free market system. However, granting the go-ahead to a chain gives the city enormous bargaining power, which it should totally cash in. Cities should stipulate where the store will go (how about large infill?), how profits will be re-invested in the community, and how the storefront will work to make the traditional box store one that becomes a place for the community.

It's true, functionally, the box stores are not much different than the department stores that anchored downtown districts (there was a Macy's at Union Square, back in the day) but the department stores worked hard to make their retail transparent, to bring activity from the street inside, and to spill interior activity outside. It was about being part of the community, not only about making money, and old-fashioned department stores recognized that being part of the community by providing a nice place to go, shop, eat, and socialize, helped them make money. Time to bring back that standard.


A revival already??!

"Starchitect" is so 2003, but a revival already? That's too much.

Iconic architecture is credited with bringing people downtown:

"This phenomenon has generated "a trickle-down effect" and Ms Osmond's foundation has capitalised on the new interest in architecture by organising 65,000 tours a year in Chicago, the city where the first skyscrapers were built."


"But Ms de Vulder said the priority was to organise city tours because they would attract a wider range of people. This would depend on training volunteers, following the Chicago model, to lead the tours."

After all
"the more people involved, the greater the energy."
Why such misplaced emphasis on architecture? It's people showing off their city that's attracting people, not the building itself. And here's a refresher on how Gehry's design doesn't revitalize Bilbao, with the exception of putting the city on the map with his name. Sell the name, but don't sell me on the idea that the building is bringing people downtown.

An IKEA grows in Red Hook

A City council sub-committee voted unanimously yesterday to allow IKEA to build a 22-acre mall on the waterfront in Red Hook, anticipated opening, 2006. Here's a run-down on the situation.

IKEA claims the new store will:
will bring 600 jobs
Red Hook residents will have a two-week head start applying for jobs

Critics claim the store will:
generate 11,000 total car trips on a busy day
generate masses of extra air pollution into Brooklyn
cause traffic delays

What neither side talks about is how the mall-building will meet the ground and integrate with the surrounding community in a way that promotes diverse uses and generate sociability. When something like an IKEA is introduced into a community, it is an overwhelmingly single-use structure, focused on the sole intent of filling the coffers of a business, and in this case, one headquartered outside of the US. While it is convenient and provides affordable goods for a community that has been historically overlooked, it does so in such a grand-sweep that it severely limits other possibilities for the future of Red Hook. I like change, communities have to change to maintain their vitality, but is IKEA Red Hook's highest potential? Definitely not.

TSTC Consortium - "Brooklyn Jobs, Traffic Fight"
IKEA Red Hook, a Big Deal for Brooklyn
NY Daily News "Wrench in Red Hook"
Gotham Gazette "In Big Projects, Where Do the Jobs Go?"

Best of New York

A year of good bests from the Voice. I still vividly remember my late night ride with Iris Javed, Best Cab Driver.


Coming up: Open House New York

Another great event that gets people out and about. Open House New York opens doors to places you didn't even know about. I'm really intrigued by: The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York, the Grand Lodge of the Masons, the House of the Redeemer, Instituto Cervantes at Amster Yard, New York City Marble Cemetery and its sister, the New York Marble Cemetery (why are they not the same?), Tenri Cultural Institute, the Terrapin Chelsea Art Gallery and the Thirteen/WNET studios.

Note that many of these places are in Manhattan. I initially thought more highly of the event because it involved all five boroughs, but changed my mind when I realized that they were mostly a handful of well-established institutions worth checking out if you've never been to them. The exceptions are the Edgar Allen Poe House in the Bronx and Eero Saarinen's JFK Terminal 5.

A couple ideas for other places, outside of Manhattan, that should open their doors are the Noguchi Museum, Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, and a few Brooklyn Heights, Bed-Stuy, Fort Greene, and Prospect Heights brownstones.


The Saved Gallery

The Saved Gallery, Berry and N.9th, became my new favorite place in the neighborhood after walking around yesterday. Started by the same fellows behind St. Helen's Cafe, I have never been to a place that seduced me to the point of coveting a tattoo with a completely un-tattoo related item, a unicorn silk-screened gray wool skirt. Now that's genius.

St. Helen's is worth checking out, especially the garden in the back, with koi peacefully swimming and turtles poised on stones.

First stop, motor racing?

I love events that gets people outside and exploring the city, which is what Firstop is all about, blurring the lines of art, design, gallery hopping, and shopping, all in a one-mile radius in Williamsburg. Its bottom line is of course to get Manhattanites out to Brooklyn, which is always a worthy cause.

Walking around, somewhat disappointed by the lackluster design offerings, what did catch my interest is that there seems to be an auto/motor/racing trend lurking about. Pierogi 2000 is celebrating its 10th anniversary with gravity racing, featuring mini-cars created by about a hundred artists. Races start October 6 through 10. Matchless, nearby, had slot car tracks set up, and has motorcycle night. Intellectuals are also getting into the gig.

It's the beginning rumblings of something more serious - cultural, political, and economic. And it's tied into how we make decisions about our spaces and how we use our resources.


A beginning

I started an experimental blog for work, as an example to show the higher-ups. But I grew to really enjoy it. I knew that once it gets handed over, it'll become an official organizational blog, and I'll no longer be able to post about Himalayan Dog Pageants. Too bad.

Thus, my very own vanity project. I'll try to keep things related to public spaces - which I consider everything but your home and your office - though I do love home spaces too, so sometimes I'll indulge.