Why houses get bigger

Image from a great article that assesses how the Cheasepeake Bay lives up to its vision set 20 years ago.

Anyone who's driven through post-war neighborhoods (Levittown, USA-types) and gawked at the McMansions on little lots, I thought this NYTimes article nicely outlined how the current economic environment encourages out-of-scale home improvements. This situation implies that people aren't just buying up land willy-nilly (they are in fact conscientious about preserving open space and farmland) but they ARE ignoring the fact that their 3-car garages containing 3 cars are burdening the very environment that they hope to save.

Follow-up: better health from nicer rooms

A meta-study, compiling all the little studies, some of which use evidence-based design, examines how the amenities in patient rooms (flora, better light, more user-friendly nurse/supply stations) do help! Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


Best campaigns

A question we field a lot over here are about how to use web sites to promote ideas, especially ideas that are not about say public markets, but are about using art and culture centers to make a positive impact on community. Hm...

Anyway, much of my work lately involves helping state agencies change the way their people think about their work, so I scan web sites a lot. My latest favorites are:

Its your space
Set up by CABE Space, one of those rare local government agencies concerned about design and the built environment. This campaign is about getting communities to take back underused land in urban areas. Lots of nice case studies and guiding principles outlining what it means to be good to public space.

Break the Chain
The National Resources Defense Council is all about campaigns - they're the ones to really populate the understanding of global climate change into mass culture - so it's no surprise that they have this savvy campaign about breaking foreign oil dependence. This is a complex story, but they take one angle and stick to it. If you dig deeper, you can learn more about other ways of looking at the issue.

It all adds up to cleaner air
The Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Transportation partnered to come up with this site about cleaning air pollution through smarter choices about auto travel. It is pretty widely accepted that the one single thing a person can do to make the most impact on a cleaner, healthier environment is not to drive. So again, this site tackles a really complicated issue by honing in on one idea, which helps people learn more about the complexities on their own terms.

New study on how built design impacts healthcare

A new method of assessing the impact of design is hoping to make headway in changing the way we try to understand how design can influence health. The researchers will do "evidence-based research," which is essentially activity mapping, of 30 patients, 20 nurses and an undetermined number of doctors over 2 weeks. The information will be added to interviews and participant surveys in this $200,000 research study that will take place over 2 years. Most significant is that the subjects will be observed in one health care facility and then in another, their input compared for accuracy in terms of what they told the researchers how they would use the space and how they actually use the space.

Sounds obvious, but it's never been done before because you rarely have a chance to shadow the same group of people in two different environments.

"Architects await new research process."
The Globe and Mail


A personal account of gentrification

This is not your average home movie - a L.A. high schooler documents gentrification of Echo Park, which I got a chance to visit on my trip out there.


"Married to the Mall"

Target, Home Depot, and now, NY Times food critic, Frank Bruni, weighs in on the Time Warner Building - from a foodie's perspective, natch. (I have to say that this may not be so surprising to those who think that he inadequately fulfills his responsibility for setting the foodie standard appropriately for NYC - is his real strength in the impact of new restaurants on a city, not on the contributions of NYC restaurants?) On the whole, he finds the experience of going through a mall to the 4th floor where the restaurants - Per Se, Masa, Cafe Gray- "disconcerting:" having to go through the mall-like building, the cold, inhuman 4th floor where the restaurants are, and the disorienting wayfinding system.

Simply accepting the fact that the type of real estate provides the kind of economic shelter that would persuade chefs like Thomas Keller and Jean-Georges Vongerichten to open a restaurant is a cop out. As Patric Kuh, author of "The Last Days of Haute Cuisine," aptly said, "the malling of Midtown Manhattan has already happened...The Time Warner Center simply puts it under a roof."

It happens to be that economics hold the real power in real estate decisions - but timing is also key. Hot neighborhoods come and go, after all, and the economic climate changes. But decisions about a building designs have a relatively longer life. The retail area of Time Warner have infinitely less possibility than they would had they not been enclosed by a roof and polished to become like every suburban mall in America.

To the manager of Per Se who are having trouble juggling the demands of unwanted tourists - tourists could comfortably peek into your restaurant without undue attention if you were out on the street. Now, after trekking up 4 flights of escalators, they feel justified in wanting more than just a fleeting glimpse of what's going on in the shiny, blank building.

"Chain" - big box nothingness everywhere

from Cinema Scope

"Chain," about the face of urban sprawl and globalization, is now opening in London (it made its debut in NYC in 2002). The acclaimed director Jem Cohen shoots big boxes and multinational chain stores in seven countries and 11 States in the US over seven years. In the Guardian article, he says that as a director, he realized that he was constantly blocking out big box stores or chain restaurants from what would otherwise be spectacular views. (It seems like it should be a documentary, but there's a subtle storyline.)

"All the world's a car park"
The Guardian, January 25, 2005

Chain Reaction: Jem Cohen
Interview with Jem Cohen in Cinema Scope by Tom Charity


Impact of science centers in their community

photo from adventurist.net

Caveat - this is a dull report, and its methodology doesn't sound tight. BUT, these types of reports are rare, so I make a point of collecting them. Just putting up the money to try to understand how a particular type of building (other than a store) and its programs can make an impact is news. Anyway, here it is (link takes you to a PDF).

"The Impact of Science Centers/Museums on their Surrounding Communities"
A report by the Association of Science Technology Centers


Another on no rules for traffic

Monderman's PR people must have gone all out with a publicity blitz. A very similar profile on Hans Monderman and Ben Hamilton-Baillie appeared last week in the Toronto Star, (before the NYTimes Jan 22 profile), again about how no road rules make for safer streets.

The Gates of Central Park

From New York Magazine

We went sledding in Central Park yesterday, a divine time of good-natured jostling with fellow New Yorkers of all ages. On the way to Cedar Hill, we picked our way through the snow with paths demarcated by tall orange studs. In patches where movement have removed some of the snowfall, we realized that the orange studs actually marked the bases for the posts of Christo's The Gates.

Central Park is terrific in the snow - it is beautiful and display all park goers in a dramatic way, transforming ing all the colors of people, with their coats, hats, scarfs, boots, hair and rosy cheeks, into little works of art. I got a sense for how the Gates will turn out, walking through the paths marked by the posts, and I must say, I now have eager anticipation.

I also just loved this profile of the artists in the New York Magazine. "No one sees Christos unless they are buying!" How New York is that?

weekend roundup

I took last Friday off to spent some quality time at the new MoMA (and alas, forgot my camera!) so here's the backlog.

"Planning our places around our people", Scotsman
An editorial about Edinburgh, Scotland's new outlook on creating places, not just designs.

"A path to road safety with no signposts", NY Times
Profile of a leading traffic engineer in Netherlands, who espouses the technique of no rules as the ultimate way to guide traffic for safer and less congested roads

"In praise of strip malls", Globe and Mail
Praising the vibrancy of strip malls, where multiple services are provided and many people congregate. This article is a direct refute of the longstanding opinion against the aesthetics of strip malls, but I personally find the actual buildings to be OK, only that they usually are fronted with parking lots, and also sit side by side along multiple lane highways, creating a certain contextless blandless, thereby affording passersby, who may not know about the Jamaican roti inside, little information about what the supposedly vibrant places offer.


TheStar.com - Two legs bad, four wheels good

Another great commentary on Toronto, the second this week by Christopher Hume. I don't always agree with what he says about architecture, but the stuff about the goods on the ground, he's spot on.


Empire State Chrysler Building in the morning fog

Thanks Brian! (I feel rather sheepish...we took this photo for a project last year, and I was always told that it was the Empire State Building! Bad of me, not noticing!)

Empire State Building to Update Its Tourist Experience

NY Times: Empire State Building to Update Its Tourist Experience

This is a good way of using entertainment to improve experience - it's in context, fits the goals, but doesn't impose entertainment on other tenants in the building.

"Aquarium won't end tourism woes"

TheStar.com - Aquarium won't end tourism woes

If not a sports stadium, and not a museum, then how about an aquarium? Another take on how to create destinations for a city. Outside of Las Vegas, where billion dollar casinos and completely fake destinations are tailored to provide maximum entertainment experience, I feel most cities, including Toronto should focus less on creating destinations through large-scale capital intensive projects and focus on some of the smalled things, like making its neighborhoods delightful destinations for both residents and tourists.

I've said before that I like what they're doing in Turin.


What's in a museum?

Francis Morrone reports from the Art Dealers Association of America panel on new museums with some recent stars and critics. On the panel were Daniel Libeskind, Glenn Lowry, director of MoMA and in charge of its recent mass renovation, Malcolm Rogers, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Victoria Newhouse, architectural historian, and moderated by Paul Goldberger, New Yorker architecture critic and dean of the Parsons School of Design.

Morrone got it right: when the panelists were asked to name their favorite museums, none of them named a star architect building. For all that cities expect museums to be and do (e.g. economic engine), then, this highlights the disconnect between architectural dreams and the realities of the building function.

Other museum news:

Hard Hat Tour at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (Mail and Guardian, South Africa) lets you take a peek at renovations
MoMA's new restaurant (Newsday)


Thom Mayne

Fascinating profile, but still no answer to my question - why did Related drop Morphosis for L.A.'s Grand Avenue project?

Convention centers ain't so great either

Rivaling sport stadiums as an expensive economic engine for declining cities are convention centers. (The rationale for the Jets Stadium is tied up with the Javitts Center perceived as being "too small.") Anyhow, this Brookings Institute report studies the potential economic benefits, if any, of convention centers. And what do they find? Few, if any benefits to be had, especially in this environment of local competitiveness and scarce public funds.

Washington DC's lost space

I like this review of DC's lost public space published by Washington City Paper, especially in its recognition that vibrant public places take time to develop, so overly deliberate though well-intentioned planning itself may limit the potential of a space.

A stadium round-up

Sports are on the mind right now. The NYTimes ran this story over the weekend, comparing the relative pros and cons for the city for its proposed areans - the Westside Jets stadium, the new Yankees baseball stadium in the Bronx, and the proposed Brooklyn Nets stadium. There's a nice chart with a snapshot of all three - and what it would cost the city.

In short, it would cost the city a lot, not just in public monies and high opportunity costs (e.g. public schools vs. pro sports), but also in public land (handed over to the stadium project with no rent). Also, the projected economic benefit significantly underwhelms the initial public investment.


Turin makes the Olympics work for it

On the front page of the sports section of today's NYTimes is a great article about how the town of Turin, future host of Olympics 2006, has taken lessons learned from Athens and reinvigorated use of their public and under-utilized spaces for the next Winter Olympics.

Instead of building completely new monolithic Olympic structures, part of the Turin line-up include the skating rink built around a 130 year old statue; the Olympic Village, the media and broadcasting center, now housed in a re-built industrial space; and a Mussolini-commissioned soccer stadium built in 1932 is now being rebuilt for other events.

Valentino Castellani, president of the Turin Organizing Committee, put it best:

"We gather in our piazzas, our town squares, for events and we've tried to replicate the feel of an Italian piazza in our competition venues. Our medal ceremony will be in a piazza. The lesson of the Athens Games is that there was no place for people to socialize. Most of the local people were on vacation. At our Olympics, we want the holiday going on in the city."
I also like that transportation issues (winding roads to the mountains about 45 minutes away will likely double regular travel time what with Olympic level traffic volume) did not immediately mean a wider road (or more roads). Instead, officials are working hard with locals to identify enough accommodations to keep people at the mountains, rather than focusing on transporting them. For a city that was once known as the Detroit of Italy, (Turin was long-time home of Fiat, pre-globalization), these are bold decisions in the right direction. (Thanks Chris!)

Turin Olympic web site
"In Turin, Olympics, Italian Style" (NY Times)


Morphosis dropped by Related?

Interesting, at the end of this article full of praise for Morphosis, it's mentioned that the architecture firm was dropped by The Related Cos. on the illustrious Grand Avenue project. Back story, anyone?

More on Wal-Mart

Not that Wal-Mart needs more publicity (bad publicity is good publicity, right?) but The Nation has a lot to say about Wal-Mart making money off of the poor, and having a hand in creating even greater poverty for their own customers.

I'm a little surprise that Wal-Mart didn't do well over the holidays. The lines people described the day after Thanksgiving sounded outrageous.

Worldwide, people continue to watch Wal-Mart warily. The BBC recently aired a segment on Wal-Mart, part of its "Outrageous Fortunes" series, profiling Wal-Mart's profit strategy. And, finally, Wal-Mart has moved into Mexico though it has long been in Brazil.

Post-tsunami - where to give

I really wanted to contribute in some way to the post-tsunami relief effort, but perhaps working for a non-profit and knowing about the ins and outs of (dis)organizational effectivemess made me wary about donating. Anyhow, it was heartening to see the Guardian profile on Architecture for Humanity and the thoughtfulness of its executive director, Cameron Sinclair. Anyhow,

On a somewhat related note, this story about elephants in Thailand warning people around them before the tsunami hit is just amazing. via City Comforts

good-byes: Luna Lounge and Gus's

My favorite free (or is it just the bands I'm friends with) place to hear bands, the Luna Lounge, is closing to make way for what is most likely a luxury high-rise.

"That's why Luna Lounge is going to go," said Sion Misrahi, president of Misrahi Realty. "The landlord needs to build up for the properties that he bought to have the highest and best use. It makes sense. This is what drives America."
Oh, America. Now this is old news, but Gus's Place, downstairs from our office, was evicted by the new tenants, after 15 years of providing neighborly service. (We're moving to the Audubon Building. What will we be leaving behind? Anyone looking for million dollar floor-throughs with views on 6 sides, keep your eyes out for forthcoming condos in the West Village.) Everytime I had the luxury of being bought lunch at Gus's, I always saw the same lunchtime regulars.

Hey, I'm down with the changes that come afoot with hot neighborhoods. I'm not a conversationist for conservation's sake type. Still, when neighborhood institutions have to go, it's a sad business.


Will Alsop increased Toronto's tourism?

Could this building really have increased Toronto's tourism by 2.3% (in money? or with tourists? or, with Bush-avoiding Americans?), as this breezy article suggests? I love good looking buildings, and like to think that I'm rather open minded about what constitutes a a well-designed building, but sometimes Will Alsop's designs allude me. Personally, this art school seems to cast a shadow over the neighborhood, an effect which it appears to cover up with brightly painted stilts. Is it just me?

Alsop won the Stirling Prize - a prestigious British architectural award for the Peckham library, which I lived near while I was in London.

Here it is, from Alsop Associates files. Definitely an interesting looking building, with the same stilt-like structures that characterize the Toronto art school building. But the community had a large role in helping the architects come up with their program to make it more than just a place to store books and more of a community learning center. I liked the library - though I'm out on his other designs.

Santa Monica under (R.E.) pressure

Do you think this house should be replaced by a multi-unit apartment building? This LA Times article details a common story of real estate development pressure in a limited land capacity, in high demand town - in this case Santa Monica. Community activists are working hard to protect, with landmark status, their Arts and Crafts and Spanish revival buildings as developers are working outpace status designation and demolish them. Realistically, only about 6-8 houses will be granted landmark status per year.

I found the quotes from the community to be especially illustrative about this battle. On one side, you have the long-time neighbor recognizing the virtues of the old-fashioned neighborhood:

"What makes this neighborhood great is people outside, walking their dogs, making coffee together. That's how you build community."
against what most would call the realists,
"Land values are high and people want to build big," Lehrer said. "That's the free market. That's capitalism."
Yes, a free market means highest chance at greatest profit, but if a place can set priorities so that you profit from better communities - in this case, perhaps by protecting against the encroachment of out-of-scale houses - then that's capitalism that's beneficial in the long haul. Multi-unit buildings can be good places - but it's a challenge most developers will not have the time, or extra resources, to commit to, because it's not a priority set by the community.

In Tokyo, a city notorious for its demolitions and new buildings and beginning to suffer the negative effects of piecemeal development, the city recently passed an ordinance that all new buildings must have "community-oriented public spaces." Still vague, but a step in the right direction, and definitely something to look into.


Sports all around

I spent a good deal of time in LA talking about people talking about sports, especially since I didn't get invited to the Sixers game one Sunday afternoon while everyone else (and their acquaintances) got to go. But in NYC, we're getting more than a fair share of sports talk ourselves, especially in ways that impact public space.

The RPA had put out a great assessment of the West Side Stadium last fall. Now, the Tri-State Transportation Consortium released its latest newsletter chock full of thought-provoking articles about transportation and transit impact of such large scale projects - the Jets Stadium, the NASCAR race track on Staten Island, the Nets stadium in Brooklyn, NYC's Olympic for 2012, the Yankee's proposed stadium in the Bronx, and the Giant's proposed stadium in NJ. See, NYC is just overrun with pro sports!

Sports venues can be great assets in a city, but the way that the professional sports industry has taken over the United States, it has become more of a liability, especially when a pro team's visibility is tied to a prominent stadium in a prominent neighborhood with little thought of how to expand its single use to community use.

Large-scale sports arenas are said to stimulate economy, create jobs, bring visitors, but what they hide is that happens at a large cost to a specific community. While cities sell out (through tax-breaks and long-term complex financing plans) their land and neighborhoods, the stadium developers continue to make money through fancy deals with the sports team, sponsorships, corporate ads, and all the rest of it. Because sports arenas are so huge and inflexible (typically single use, with blank walls facing the neighborhood, managed by private, highly capitalistic organizations with little ingenuity about including the community) they should be particularly difficult to commit to - anyway, that's what I think. Obviously this is not the way the city thinks. (The one exception being Fenway Park in Boston, which I absolutely love. Little and historic, it is in the middle of the neighborhood. And parking should be difficult - the ballpark is next to several T stations!)

Give me a college basketball game anytime - the fervor over watching your favorite hometown team is great, and sparks good conversation anywhere and with almost anyone. But why do we need to throw more money to professional teams, who are already making millions, charging outrageous ticket prices, and whose stadiums only drain a community of its social and economic resources? I have an especially hard time wrapping my mind around pro-football, where only 1/2 of the season's 17 games are played at a team's home stadium. Is this really the future of NYC?


a couple early round-ups

See what I mean about seniors and about to be seniors? They're going to shape housing development and other land-use decisions more intensely in the future...

...not sure if this Governing article answers its own question: should planners care about broadband? I have said emphatically yes before. This article gives you the ins and outs of the debate, and how very localized it is...

Greenline deserves some props

During my stint at a maddeningly disorganized community development corporation, I started writing for the organization's little paper, the Greenline. Billed as the only community paper in Williamsburg-Greenpoint, it was in danger of being seriously eclipsed by more bankrolled (and I have to admit, hipper-looking) journals sprouting up all over the place in the neighborhood.

I picked up my copy (distributed for free) yesterday, and I have to say that I have so rarely felt so connected to the real happenings in the neighborhood as I did when I read this paper. Sure it's not as glossy as all the others, but I learned about the community's inclusive open space proposal, their nuanced reaction to Amanda Burden's Department of City Planning's waterfront plan for the area (not all bad as most other major papers are wont to point out), the YMCA's open house and offers, new yoga studios, an entrepreneurship class for new small business owners, local school sports results, the high school student who is going to Antarctica this winter (!), an inside look at a Polish bakery, art going-ons, etc etc. There's more!

These highly localized media outlets are important, and typically highly underrated, for giving the community a voice and connecting people to the physical and social neighborhood they occupy. Yes, sometimes there are just too many Eagle Scout pancake breakfast fund-raiser announcements, but there's nowhere else that you're going to read about the Swinging Sixties Senior Center along with a gallery opening and intermediate sports news. (Intermediate meaning not varsity, or JV).

Congratulations Greenline. After just a couple of years, you're looking great!!

west village good places

The West Village is one of the most lauded neighborhoods in Manhattan, and despite having worked there for more than a year now, I still find myself surprised from time to time with a new (for me) nice cafe or coffeeshop that fits the third place bill nicely.

Today it was Doma (Perry & 7th Ave), where I ran into (and didn't acknowledge) an acquaintance's ex-boyfriend, and where two writers introduced themselves, one having recognized the other by the back flap photo of his book (which I had never heard of, "White Christmas.") Doma struck me as a place that was once hot but that has eased into sincere comfort with its cooling down.

I started thinking, since our office is up for a big move to Broadway and W. 4th, that it would be nice to keep a running list of favorite, nice places to stop into in the West Village. These are the types of places that you'll run into someone you know or have spotted around the neighborhood before.

Jack's Stir Brew - On W 10th St @ Greenwich
Joe - on Waverly Place @ Gay St
Six Twelve - on 6th @ W 12th
Grey Dog's Coffee - 33 Carmine @ Bleeker
Bar Six - on 6th Ave @ W 13th


Cacti from Catalina Island

Usher in the (not so) new

The thing about a new year is that expectations are high. But in reality, not much has changed since last week.

A new survey published by the National Association of Realtors suggests that most homebuyers are not ready to even consider the implications of more livable communities. Topping the list of their desires are bigger lots, bigger highways, and access to highways. Reductionist, but true. Nothing has changed.

Anti-sprawl Innovations Briefs has a new report out on the political importance of micropoli (not yet posted on the site). So the US continues to sprawl.

OK then, what's new?

Kunstler's blog! I had no idea.

Los Angeles

I spent New Year's in Los Angeles, and as much as I would like to document things, I am still not in the habit of picking up the camera. Sitting in the car so much, nothing really struck me as worth pulling out the camera for anyhow. I made people drive me to all the more walkable neighborhoods that aren't beach boardwalks, so I could get out of the car and get a better feel for what it would be like to live there.

Walkability was essentially limited to one main strip in each neighborhood. There is little to no street grid network, though sidewalks abound. I think this every time I visit, but it's interesting that in such a pleasant, temperate environment that LA remains one of the least walked around places in the United States. Also interesting is that the attitude of people there is far more relaxed and casual than the East Coast - all the more the type who would want to mingle with neighbors. But few people walk from place to place - and walking from neighborhood to neighborhood is nearly impossible.

For anyone paying a visit to LA who would like to do more than sit in cars, I went to Silver Lake (on Sunset Blvd), Echo Park (on Sunset), Larchmont (on Larchmont Blvd), and Venice Beach (Abbott-Kinney). We tried to go to Griffith Park, but the gates were closed. We also spent a day on Catalina Island, which was much more walkable and sustainable due to the stringent rules established by the Wrigley Estate. I took some photos of the cacti in the Botanical Garden, some of which are endemic to the island.