Category Archives: Urban Design

Mario Botta and the Lost Exceptionalism of Architecture

I don’t typically find myself writing about architecture anymore: its artistic impacts are above my pay grade, its history was never covered in my curriculum extra or otherwise, and I have carved out a tiny niche in the world of urbanism blogging with Radials. (If I needed to vent “artistically” [and I use that word lightly, can’t you tell by the quotes?] I would write something for Unknown Concrete, but when I realized that managing two blogs by myself was going to be a bit more challenging that expected I let the registration lapse.) I enjoy reading Paul Goldberger immensely (kudos to him for winning the Vincent Scully prize for architectural criticism recently) and Michael Sorkin and Mark Shepard are the kind of iconoclastic writers and editors we need in an increasingly mundane urban ferment—it seems like the more purely academic we have in urbanism the more stale the ideas become.

I also don’t write about architecture because it’s sort of depressing. Even really beautiful projects like the Barclays Center are marred by the addition of a dozen residential towers that look like they were gleaned from Le Corbusier’s notebooks, the sort of vertical living arrangements he would have built if the relevant design aesthetic had shifted from brick to steel and glass. (Aside: I know that readers are probably turned off by my admiration for the Vishaan Chakrabarti/SHoP designed stadium mostly because of its association with Forest City Ratner and their opaque dealings with the City administration, but I’m talking solely about the aesthetic qualities of the stadium and I think it’s a beautiful, if dangerously contemporary, piece of work.) The context of modern architecture is tipped towards the ordinary where developers want the cheapest, quickest, and plainest way to make a dollar off urban land that is getting exponentially more expensive every time I look for an apartment. On the high end, architectural quirks can turn off buyers who simply want an apartment that impresses on the inside while people in lower tax brackets—well actually the shortage of low and middle income housing in major cities and especially New York mean that there isn’t much room for scrutiny when it comes to dwellings. Either way, when it comes to urban buildings we end up with safely experimental pieces from starchitects like Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei where a flourishing twirl of titanium is simply an autograph on an otherwise plain façade letting developers sell apartments for twice or three times what they’re actually worth.

 Mario Botta and the Lost Exceptionalism of Architecture

Photo Urs Homberger

Then I stumbled upon this decade old Swiss wellness center (Bergoase) designed by the Swiss architect Mario Botta. (Alright, so my girlfriend actually stumbled upon it and passed it along to me—it’s always full disclosure here at Radials!). Botta—a disciple of Le Corbusier who thankfully took his cues from the bespectacled icon’s work in architecture and not urban theory—isn’t exactly a household name and has only a few buildings located outside of Switzerland including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (not the most interesting building I’ve seen) and the Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul. His most famous building is probably the Church of San Giovanni Battista in Mogno, Switzerland and the similarities between this stark turret of a church and the Bergoase are undeniable, especially when you view the church from profile.

The shaved cylinder in Mogno loses its sharp edging on the move north into the Alps but in calming the sides Botta has achieved something otherworldly and organic simultaneously—the quarter-and-half domes sticking out of the Bergoase look like halved tangerines or almonds from another planet. The embrace of those quasi-natural shapes is a departure from his tutelage under Le Corbusier that doesn’t quite have the escape velocity needed to completely ditch the International Style that made his idol famous, but it does represent an interesting dichotomy for an architect like Botta. Viewed from above, the Bergoase is rigid and mechanical, concepts that dominated Le Corbusier’s architectural vernacular and trickled down to his pupils, but the dorsal qualities of Bergoase in profile are closer in style to contemporary buildings Norman Foster and Bjarke Ingels, architecture’s current wunderkind and 32 years Botta’s junior. (The interior of Bergoase is a vogue juxtaposition of sharp steel and glass and undulating stone, the modern and ancient side by side.)

 Mario Botta and the Lost Exceptionalism of Architecture

Photo Enrico Cano

Designing striking buildings in the Alps is an exercise in unrestrained architecture however, and in urban landscapes we are often bound by zoning, space, and developer vision. Botta could be unleashed on his project rather than chained by it, a concept that monumental projects like the Freedom Tower and West 57 (to say nothing of the absolutely repulsive design for the rest of Atlantic Yards) could glean more than a little. Architecture is getting more and more stale in this city even as the real estate prices continue to rocket upwards—you figure one or two of these developers could afford a risk or two when clients will gladly pay millions of dollars simply for the privilege of living in a brand new building. Though when our vernacular begins to shift from “how beautiful” to “how much?” maybe it’s just time to pack it in.

Learning About Public Space in the Himalayas

My first trip to India was completely overwhelming. My future ones probably will be too, but the first time is always special. My brother and his long time girlfriend were traveling the world after spending the previous six years living in Harlem as a high school teacher and a social worker respectively and I decided that spending my college’s spring break visiting them would be a good use of my time while my friends spent the week alternating hangovers and blackouts in Cozumel and Cancun and Daytona Beach. “I’m going to India,” I would say, in a tone that was an odd mixture of sophomoric gloating and debauchery envy; my friends would respond, “Oh.”

I bought my ticket (embarking Friday after class and returning Monday morning before a 9:00 AM lecture—I apparently wanted to squeeze every last bit of culture out of the swarthy subcontinent) and landed in New Delhi about a day after I left Boston. The international terminal at the Indira Gandhi Airport was pleasantly modern and almost aggressively sterile compared to the separate domestic terminal which is probably best compared to, in function and cleanliness, La Guardia Airport circa 1968 (more on that later). I spotted my brother and his girlfriend as easily as you would probably expect, hugged both of them, and, after disengaging with my brother, elbowed some poor guy right in the jaw. India is pretty crowded.

And not the kind of crowded I was familiar with. A New Yorker will pack into a morning train but convince themselves they’re not really touching anyone; Tokyo residents are more like beautifully choreographed schools of fish than crowds; Hong Kong is reminiscent of ants scurrying back and forth from glass and steel hills. But India was movement en masse, personal space something completely unfamiliar in public space. From an urbanism perspective India was a place of uncomfortable success.

For example, the breakup of the country into nearly autonomous provinces means that, unlike its demographic rival to the East, central planning is not the rule when it comes to metropolitan design. The highway and arterial road systems in major Indian cities look more like a concrete ribbon cutting through a crowded crush. The residential construction in Mumbai and Delhi is, as urbanists like Edward Glaeser point out, a market-driven organism so much so that when you compare the amoebic Delhi to, say, the perfectly symmetric Shenzen or Guangdong (India does have a Le Corbusier designed grid city by the name of Chandigarh; it is not as cool as you think) you get the sense that the Chinese axiom of “harmony” has not really made the cut as a continental export.

Then we went to Shimla. And Shimla is not Delhi. The city sits in the northwestern range of the Himalayas and serves as the seat of government in Himachal Pradesh. It was also the preferred summer residence of English viceroys from the 19th century until Indian independence who had the right idea when it came to subcontinental heat. 8,000 feet above temperatures that can only properly be described as oppressive, Shimla is as close as one gets to serenely alpine in the subcontinent.

 Learning About Public Space in the Himalayas

It’s also pretty odd. And probably the quirkiest thing about Shimla is the elevator ride you take to actually get to the City Center. This takes some explanation. On approach Shimla looked like any City on the Side of a Hill; overpriced tourist hotels (either colonial or colonial-revival, there was no way to tell) that taxi drivers invariably tried to drop you at so they could collect tout commissions, the best looking trucks I’ve ever seen (buxom mud flaps wouldn’t cut it here), and coach buses taking up every inch of their respective lanes sometimes within a couple feet of a Himalayan precipice. My brother convinced the driver that we’d much rather stay in the city center and, while disappointed, he dropped us in a parking lot   and directed us towards a narrow corridor flanked by arrows and disclaimers in Hindi and predictably perfect formal English that said something along the lines of:


Lift to City Centre This Way


Alright, so slightly confusing, but if there’s one thing in India to trust wholeheartedly its the universal fusillade of administrative signage. We paid the fee (something in the range of 5 rupees, hoping [ok, praying] that the whole fare went to elevator maintenance) and, after discussing the obvious Mad Max meets the Jetsons parallel, opened the door at the bottom of a beautifully maintained brick street lined with shopfronts and statuary and cutely misplaced Swiss architectural flourishes. And no cars.

It’s hard to understate what a succor pedestrian plazas are in a country like India. When Mayor Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Sadik Kahn started the summer streets program two years ago people sort of apprehensively embraced the concept because you are aware that at 6 PM your precious stretch of 2nd Avenue and Lafayette turn back into congested and noisy pumpkins. The newly minted pedestrian zones in Times and Herald Square on the other hand, are wildly popular year round and people feel a sense of solace on their small concrete islands. But the crush of New York is almost placid compared to Indian metropolises so freeing yourself of the peal of engines and horns brings about a certain giddiness. Shimla was pure deliverance.

 Learning About Public Space in the Himalayas

Unlike New York, though, Shimla is a city literally centered on a pedestrian-only zone, a reversal of nearly every urban planning technique we’ev seen in this country. Originally banning carriages (well, everyone but the viceroys) and eventually cars from the city center created a trajectory that we don’t see in any major city in the U.S. because you end up sacrificing productivity and property values for civil tranquility. That arithmetic has begun to change in the past two decades with the advent of high speed internet connections and effective telepresence. Executives in centrally located businesses will still promote the existential merits of a face-to-face meeting, but the fact remains that location is starting to lose its luster in the service economy from I.T. to hedge funds.

The shift may be the perfect time to reconsider our general planning vernacular, at least in densely populated areas like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and the like. This isn’t to say that cars don’t have a place in the city—commercial operations wouldn’t be able to function without deliveries and you can’t have a subway stop every block—but the rationale for putting the modest pedestrian plaza movement on the fast track seems relatively straightforward. We need big ideas for this country’s cities, even if they’re tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Artist Ex Machina

15YELLIN SPAN articleLarge v2 Jed Lipinski Artist Ex Machina

Copyright Jed Lipinski for the New York Times

For a long time, artists sort of found themselves. If you painted or collaged or mixed-media’d then you found a grungy apartment with ample, raw space that you could bend to your creative will; and, because the rent was invariably cheap, you could sustain a lifestyle selling the occasional magnum opus for rent money. With the real estate frenzy in the late 90′s, desirable (see: cheap and big) artists spaces saw rents rise geometrically and all but the Gagosian-repped (and rent controlled) survived the times. But artist communities sort organically, and eventually barrios like Red Hook, Williamsburg, and the Lower East Side saw a new generation of creatives paying whatever they could for whatever they could find.

Dustin Yellin might be trying to change all that. Highlighted in today’s New York Times, Yellin is a young sculptural artist with deep enough pockets to make a down payment on a 24,000-square-foot warehouse in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn that he wants to turn into, as told to the Times, “a kind of utopian art center.” This isn’t your hipster friend’s art collective. Mr. Yellin’s vision is more event space than artistic cooperative, and he dreams of housing not only promising aesthetes in a fellowship program but conducting symposiums and, of course, a sculpture garden.

Yellin BK RH 2  Artist Ex Machina

Copyright JamFan2 via Flickr

Dustin Yellin’s desire to shape a corner of Red Hook into a an artistic frontier represents an interesting aberration in urban planning based on the sorcery of capitalism rather than administration (this type of shift—transformation-via-acquisition— isn’t all that different from the way Eli Broad transformed the Los Angeles museum scene or Tony Goldman reinvigorated SoHo, except that while they work in the 10-figure world, Mr. Yellin works in the seven. Three digits and a world apart.) Yellin considers the landscape in a place like Red Hook—bucolic, sparse, apparently raw—more of a canvas than simple quarters and, for those of us who like to see the ample intersection of art and urbanism more often, it’s a welcome piece.

Yellin BK RH 1 Artist Ex Machina

Shopping with a Sunroof: Outdoor Malls and the American Downtown


It isn’t supposed to be this cold and dreary in California, not even in December when apparently it rains because the region has what college geography professors call a Mediterranean climate, which means warm/dry summers and wet/cool winters though it appears to me now that the fluidity of that generalization wasn’t discussed enough. I’m cold. And the abandoned sidewalks tell me that most Californian’s just stay inside when it’s this cold. They’d rather ignore exactly what’s happening outside and not have to explain that, yes, sometimes it’s less than an ideal climate in paradise.

Which is why I’m confused as to why I’m in (at?) one of the regions many outdoor malls. I’m not sure if these centers are a common sight but they don’t take a whole lot of explanation: take the ceilings and fluorescent lighting and overwhelming feeling of labyrinthine entrapment (though not the next level of that same sensation which is instinctual, amygdalic fear) out of a typical mall and the picture sharpens itself a little. Actually, that explanation probably wasn’t even needed. It’s a mall, but it’s outside.

kpidq0 06block91 Shopping with a Sunroof: Outdoor Malls and the American Downtown

I’m sure climate-based limitations quarantines these structures to either the tundra hardened middle of America where people proudly talk about their left-of-zero lows (I’ve been to one in Denver though I think it was actually Denver’s downtown, I have no way of being sure, but we’ll talk about that below) or the heliophilic enclaves of Arizona, California, Florida, etc. If you haven’t been to one, it’s not really a prerequisite for understanding this essay; you can go to a mall with one of those personal fans and sunglasses and pretty much get the same experience. And it’s not even the point of this essay, really.

I’m at The Block at Orange; I’m not going into the layered semantics behind the label, there are marketing teams paid millions of dollars in contracts to come up with those sorts of things and strategic sloganeering is not just about messaging but polygonal aesthetics; The Block at Orange has a beautiful syntactical symmetry to it. TBaO is actually an archetypal midsize outdoor mall, e.g. the buildings are all multi-story in scale but not in practice, the price points for most of the stores are steadily in the middle income bracket and even the cannily placed upscale brands are of the “outlet store” variety. The architecture could be classified as something like Suburban Dynamic without much irony, as in there’s a lot of glass and thinly welded steel and aluminum and some aesthetic flourishes involving indoor/outdoor restaurant.

The architecture is less important than the overall design, though, since malls (even outdoor ones) are typically designed with a lot of TBDs in their schematics. Usually (and for uninteresting reasons) they (the malls) are moored by some set of department store or large shopping experience, and if the mall is tiered by income brackets (as most large malls are) there will be a high end buoy on one side of the mall flanked by shops with similar price points and a working class incarnation on the other side, etc. These are typically called Anchor Stores (hence the nautical language) and they also typically don’t pay rent. Every mall follows this formula.

google maps malls la block at orange1 Shopping with a Sunroof: Outdoor Malls and the American Downtown

So, physically at least, outdoor and indoor malls don’t really adhere to different formulas which is why there isn’t aren’t separate developer markets for indoor/outdoor opportunities, i.e. if you planned the Springfield Mall you can probably design the Springfield Promenade. Which is why it’s so strange to stand in the middle of an IM and compare it to standing “inside” an OM. They’re both there to get you to spend money, we can confidently call that the foundation for either construction, but what about after that? Do they really serve the same psychological purpose?

I’ve been to a few OMs, and a couple of them are built (the word “built” is a little squishy here because they weren’t built so much as installed, even though it’s clear that the construction was done under a clear, unified vision of a final product) in downtown areas (Santa Monica and Denver come to mind immediately). It didn’t strike me as strange until I looked around at TBaO and understood that most OMs are meant to be ersatz downtowns for cities that were either never centralized to begin with or were decentralized through crawling expansion, i.e. they are downtowns for people who have never seen downtowns before.

OMs aren’t bulwark against the creeping It seems like the popularity of these OMs in Southern California actually allows for sprawl to continue ad nauseam since the original, organic intent of business districts was ease of access and encouragement of proximity and you can see that same ethos in a lot of, crestfallen yes, but ultimately pragmatic American Main Streets. OMs are loose hubs, inclusive but in that sort of claustrophobic way which, honestly, probably doesn’t bother a lot of people. But then, OMs aren’t really problems themselves, are they? They are so complementary as to be necessary for the current American geographical schematics. The places we live aren’t conducive to glued downtowns so we have to build them deus ex under the express guidelines that the solution to growth is more growth, that linearity is the American Way. We don’t need to incubate culture; we simply grow it out of the ground.

The volume of text on the disintegration of the American downtown should give you an idea of how much professional academic and journalist thought goes into this subject so I’ll spare you any of my distinctly un-academic/journalistic thoughts. From a strictly urban point of view these OMs are troubling because they pack metropolitan problems into smaller boxes than are practical, i.e. instead of looking at recovering economies, public spaces, environmental issues, etc. as intermeshed issues that play off each other, OMs treat them as monolithic issues that can be solved with a sledgehammer.

People vote with their feet and wallets, though, and on any given weekend night OMs are still packed with shoppers and movie goers and awkwardly amorous teenagers wading through the waters of marginal independence. These are not unpopular places, and they’re not setup to imitate American downtowns functionally and not aesthetically so the amount of planning vis-à-vis nostalgia is kept to a bare minimum. These are main streets for a second-generation brand of suburbia that has dominated the planning vernacular for the past 30 years. But with energy prices reaching historical zeniths and the clustering of what Richard Florida calls the “creative class” in cities, the defining language of commercial construction will eventually change and, hopefully, artifacts like The Block at Orange will become silly detours.

The Most Ambitious Transportation Project in Decades?

Gizmodo has some absolutely stunning renderings of the Thames Hub, a Foster + Partners proposed transportation center that would connect Southern England to the continent and the  by means of high-speed rail and would presumably become the gold standard of wildly grand infrastructure projects. From Gizmodo’s Jesus Diaz:

This thing is crazy. It aims to be a central hub for absolutely everything, with multi-level underground railroads and highways that will connect it with London, the rest of Britain and to Europe through the Channel Tunnel. It will also include a new Thames Barrier that will extend the protection of riverside lands against floods, further expanding the surface available for construction.” 

estuary aerial credit foster   partners The Most Ambitious Transportation Project in Decades?

All Photos Copyright of Foster + Partners

I really don’t want to go into the details of the project because the pictures alone either make you queasy or rapturous, any amount of detailed description would border on redundant. It’s huge, it’s ambitious on par with Caesar, it would change the complexion of England’s signature waterway, and the effects on the surrounding environment would presumably be negative. Nevertheless, I really like this project, not only for its attempt to transform the transportation vernacular in England. While it may be the id-driven Cro-Magnon in me, there is something beautiful about grandiosity when it’s paired with pragmatism and adventure, something whimsically human about it.

medium highspeedrail section credit foster   partners The Most Ambitious Transportation Project in Decades?

All Photos Copyright of Foster + Partners

medium estuary airport section credit foster   partners The Most Ambitious Transportation Project in Decades?

All Photos Copyright of Foster + Partners

medium p06770 fp439165 The Most Ambitious Transportation Project in Decades?

All Photos Copyright of Foster + Partners

medium p06770 fp439164 The Most Ambitious Transportation Project in Decades?

All Photos Copyright of Foster + Partners

Prospect NOLA and Performa NYC Bring Urbanism Into the Artistic Scrum

For those of you that know me personally, my girlfriend works in the art world and serves as an idea mill for a company that deals in pricey contemporary art pieces. She brought the idea of writing on where art and the city interact and I thought it had a lot of legs to it so I’m going to try my best to reconcile the least pretentious parts of both spheres and I’m really hoping that this comes out of the oven in some sort of cogent shape. Good luck to my readers—this could be ugly.

The photographer Ricky Powell once snapped a picture of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat standing on Mercer Street in SoHo in 1985. Basquiat, 24 and lithe, stands separate from the veteran tastemaker and the much older and aloof Warhol looks slightly electrocuted and sleepy. The photo’s quirkiness is probably a product of time, we tend to see (and want to see, which might be the same thing) celebrity auteurs as inhabiting the exact same sphere and expect that sphere to be based on intimate relationships that are easily decipherable: friendship, hatred, envy, etc. Powell’s photo doesn’t really jive with that notion because Warhol and Basquiat aren’t scowling or smiling at or even standing close to one another, they’re just sort of there on the street “with” each other, in the loosest sense of the word. Both men were close to death, three years and heroin for Basquiat, two years and arrhythmia for Warhol, but their art was still thriving in the thick ferment of 1980’s New York. The pairs’ relationship to New York individually and in tandem ties a knot between urbanism (chaos, tranquility, etc.) and the art that emerges from the fray.

For those of us who don’t know the secret handshake, art can seem like a directionless endeavor with values and dollar figures attached arbitrarily to pieces pulled out the twisted nether that is the “art scene.” Two current shows, ­­­­Prospect New Orleans (10/22/11 through 01/29/12) and Performa in New York City (11/01/11 through 11/21/11) are attempting to put art into perspective and provide a sounding board for people like us, who tend to understand the city better than the abstract narratives told through acrylic and PVC and archival inkjet prints.

 Prospect NOLA and Performa NYC Bring Urbanism Into the Artistic Scrum

Performa NYC Emblem (Copyright Performa NYC)

Studies in urbanism aren’t bereft of aesthetics especially when you look at events like the Tactical Urbanism Salon that took place in Long Island City in early October. Presentations by groups like Vertical Theory and BroLab are artistic forays into urban planning but aren’t really awash in artistic pursuits, which is why we have terms like “urban design” which probably confuses a lot more people than it enlightens. Where the 1:1 ratio of urban design to art breaks down rather quickly is when the question of use comes up. You can use (hopefully) whatever urban designers come up with because that’s the whole purpose of their endeavors; they want to make civic things (garages, libraries, neighborhoods, etc.) beautiful while retaining the utilitarian innards, not a new mission by any amount of the imagination but the meshing of architecture and planning is starting to turn itself over more fully to the ideas espoused by urban theorists like Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida. So when we flip the balance and the weights of art and pragmatic design wobble into new proportions civic missions become something completely separate and novel and demanding.

New Orleans and New York are cities that are on completely separate paths right now. NOLA is still reeling from the hammering it received in 2006 from Hurricane Katrina and attempts to shake off its disaster zone stigma have been slow. Populations that saw the most damage from the hurricane began a hegira that still skews the city’s demographic projection in the census conducted four years later. New York continues to thrive even in the face of recession and disaster and the influx of those seeking opportunity is stronger than ever. They are on either side of life—revitalization and excess.

 Prospect NOLA and Performa NYC Bring Urbanism Into the Artistic Scrum

Prospect NOLA Header (Copyright Prospect New Orleans)

Prospect New Orleans is the more interesting of the two if not only because it is expressly dedicated to “the principle that the art of our time can play a significant role in the revitalization of an important U.S. city.” A magnanimous art exhibition in a place like New Orleans cannot be separated from its watery past and that is exactly what makes a project like Prospect feel so unpretentious and unassuming. The art doesn’t feel as though it’s solipsistic, there are intimate interactions with city spaces and city history that make the projects more an outcropping of civil struggle and rebirth than a practice in experimentation and progress. It is art with purpose. Prospect not only feels like a non-profit exhibition, it files its taxes as one as well.

Where the 1:1 ratio of urban design to art breaks down rather quickly is when the question of use comes up. You can use (hopefully) whatever urban designers come up with because that’s the whole purpose of their endeavors; they want to make civic things (garages, libraries, neighborhoods, etc.) beautiful while retaining the utilitarian innards…”

Prospect also just seems fun. The opening festivities included a composition by the new media artist R. Luke DuBois in which high school marching bands separated into five groups converge on NOLAs’ Washington Square, the timing organized so that the bands’ climaxes mesh perfectly, like musical floodwaters merging in downtown New Orleans. William Pope.L asked for photographs of New Orleanians in reaction to the questions “When you dream of New Orleans, what do you dream of? When you wake up in the morning, what do you see?” which he collected into a video project and installed onto a moving truck, providing a “collective memory bank” of the city of New Orleans and its people.

Peforma is the more serious of the two biennials, and that isn’t to say that Prospect is particularly unserious or that Performa is overly self-aware, but the New York exhibition does represent a collection of works that forces a separation from civil reconstruction into current movements within a vast urban zone. Performa allows itself to be expansive and the exhibitions address New York narrowly (Nicoline Van Harskamp’s Any Other Business – A Scripted Conference is expressly political but the obvious parallels to a financial board meeting are obvious) and the wider cultural fray that is drawn to the show (L’Encyclopédie de la Parole’s Chorale adopts political speeches and poetry and answering machine messages and turns them into a chorus of musical minutiae, sort of a humdrum opera).

A magnanimous art exhibition in a place like New Orleans cannot be separated from its watery past and that is exactly what makes a project like Prospect feel so unpretentious and unassuming.”

Comparisons automatically become qualitative seesaws and readers should be aware that the schism between Prospect and Performa is not so much a difference of substance than it is a difference of scope. They both serve disparate purposes as well: Prospect is dedicated towards healing New Orleans through exhibitions based on the experience and recently disastrous history of a specific city with bayou-born artists while Performa is a broad-based artistic symposium based on a more general interpretation of artistic expression within New York’s city limits. They’re relatives but more cousins than sisters. It is supremely important, then, that Prospect and Performa are inextricably bound to the geography of their respective cities.

Prospect is a New Orleans Biennale, Performa is a Biennale in New York.”

Prospect uses New Orleans differently than Performa uses New York or as a friend in the art world summarizes, “Prospect is a New Orleans Biennale, Performa is a Biennale in New York.” Truth is, Performa takes its cues from the City but at the end of the day New York becomes a stage for Performa to be played out on while Prospect is part and parcel to its urban setting with exhibitions woven into the map of New Orleans and exhibitions are matched to specific locales. Prospect does not differentiate between the city and the art, there aren’t any lines to blur or membranes to cross or cognitive dissonances to overcome, Prospect is just New Orleans with more art floating around. Alternatively, Performa is art for those in tune with the arts. . You have to find Performa within dozens of different venues and, while the exhibitions are immensely rewarding, there is not that gut-feeling of augmented reality, it’s just another great art show in New York.

 Prospect NOLA and Performa NYC Bring Urbanism Into the Artistic Scrum

Bring to Light Logo (Copyright Bring to Light)

(I feel badly not mentioning another interesting urban/art show in New York City: Bring to Light. This exhibition is the diminutive, nocturnal counterpart to Performa, and has elements common to both shows discussed in detail above. The show is also a synchronized world event with other cities creating their own site-specific “nuit blanche” events and the message eventually pushes visitors’ towards urbanism’s current overwhelming meme of the Global City. This squishy concept is better explained within a vacuum, like so much else in urban design, but let’s just say that many city thinkers consider the future of American metropolises to be integrally linked to that of internationally ones. Bring to Light is worth taking a look at, if only to see what a one-day, nighttime art exhibition can achieve.)

Peforma New York and Prospect New Orleans are not, by definition, experiments in urbanism, but they do provide a sort of artistic reaction to the formative events in two cities’ histories, a sort of urbanism retrospective. Melting down artistic pursuits to their most malleable and pouring them into the map molds of New York and New Orleans has yielded some of the most impressive site-specific exhibitions in recent years.  It looks like urbanism might have found a willing partner at last.

Shifting the Suburban Housing Price Paradigm

Note: This article is in response to the NYT’s Allison Arieff’s wonderful article on the follies of pre-fab suburbs and how the American innovation ethic should be ashamed that cookie-cutter houses are one of our most easily identified exports. You can read the article at the link above (and I highly recommend you do so). 

Disasters do well when they’re glued to our memory through a short, descriptive nickname. We have Savings-and-Loan, Katrina, and the Dust Bowl, among dozens of other branded traumas. While the most recent trouble in this country doesn’t really roll off the tongue—sub-prime mortgage crisis—it tends to bring up a similar lexicon based entirely on placard signage with “foreclosed” being the most visceral and ubiquitous. A home was the most valuable asset in most people’s lives until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

The amazing glut of financial data we’re all drowning in explains the how and why succinctly once its reduced a little, but Allison Arieff’s opinion piece in yesterday’s Times is separate from any economic jargon and it implies an interesting question from the perspective of aesthetic-economics: Did our housing stock sink because it’s junk? The supersaturation of the housing market by prefabricated single-family homes is, as Ms. Arieff drives home, consummately uncreative and could in fact be economically disastrous. Ms. Arieff makes the argument for more creative takes on home design as part of a greater drive towards altering the suburban dialogue; less about me and more about we, in the least socialistic sense of the word. Does this house fit into the aesthetic of the surrounding nature? The topography and geography of the region? Do I need a house this big?

Those are important questions to ask when reconsidering the future of the suburban vernacular, but the future of the greener, more beautiful, geographically integrated and neighborly home rests on the back on consumers and builders who both take long looks at their wallets before making real estate decisions—now more than ever. Fortunately we can use the Housing Price Index (HPI) to see where design and economics overlap, at least heuristically.

There are dozens of neighborhoods that innately chained themselves to prefab suburbia but we are going to choose three for reasons of regional and economic smoothing: Irvine, CA, Lakeland, FL, and Dayton, OH. California and Florida were disproportionately eviscerated by the housing crises so any look at their respective HPI products should be with that caveat in mind (all data points taken from the Federal Housing Finance Agency):

LowHPI 1024x665 Shifting the Suburban Housing Price Paradigm

Housing Price Indices for Lakeland, FL, Irvine, CA, and Dayton, OH from Q1 2007 to Q2 2011

Dayton floats near the neutral HPI transversal while Lakeland and Santa Ana faced anywhere from +5 to -20 HPI indices in the course of 18 reporting quarters. On the balance they are a deep red and overall housing stock worth won’t recover without an absurdly robust financial resurrection. This is the harsh hangover of the boom times especially in the sun drenched, dream states of California and Florida where the construction of cookie cutter suburbs was strongest and excess housing stock is par for the impeccably manicured, Jack Nicklaus designed course. Amazingly, and for reasons I’m sure Rick Perry would quickly take credit for, the last head of the suburban Cerberus, Texas, saw general HPI increases in sprawling Houston and Dallas showing that money can often overcome aesthetic deficiencies.

The mirrored examples we’ll use are Ogden, UT, Peoria, IL, and Augusta, GA (controlling for incomes as much as possible is important when discussing economic shockwaves so you’ll see that the media incomes for all six cities are within one standard deviation except for Santa Ana [high outlier] and Dayton [low outlier]). These communities have something in common: they’re all pretty old. Older communities understandably have a lower proportion of prefabricated suburban model homes and tend to be more heterogeneous architecturally. That isn’t necessarily a precondition for an economic bulwark (see: Baltimore, MD and Detroit, MI) but this figure does present the necessary contrast:

Lowprice 1024x610 Shifting the Suburban Housing Price Paradigm

Housing Price Indices for Peoria, IL, Ogden, UT, and Augusta, GA from Q1 2007 to Q2 2011

Both of these graphs show that 2007 was a terrible year for the housing market universally; good design or not, most people’s houses were worth a lot less in 2007 than 2006. It’s also important to note that California and Florida were twin epicenters of overextended credit and misadventures in real estate so the track of their respective lines are more tumultuous than other states. The outcome in both those states is a bit of a conundrum though; prefabricated housing made it easier—financially and logistically—for developers to build oceans of cookie cutter neighborhoods, but are the ghost towns in California and Florida barren because they were priced inaccurately or because there are too many damn houses?

What we can read (inexactly, of course) is that non-streamlined design in cities of similar size and income have done significantly better in holding their values over the course of the recent recession. Regions with high levels of new construction (<20 years) have faced precipitously tumbles from their peak worths in the years before 2007. This economic extension of Ms. Arieff’s article on the folly of large, single family, unsustainable prefabs is, at best, a heuristic analysis of post-recession housing stock. But judging from the empty acres of perfectly symmetrical homes in Florida and California, there may be something to it.

Cities Beyond the Horizon

The data artist and Creative Director of the Data Arts Team at the Google Creative Labs, Aaron Koblin, likes data points. The digital representation of information— flights, sounds, physical addresses— provide an oddly relatable medium. It brings the digital into the analog; it’s impossible not to be enthralled by his most ambitious projects because they tend to have people just like you as willing collaborators. Flight Patterns, a hypnotic blizzard of national flight paths musically backed with kitschy and endearing electronica, announced Koblin’s rise to infographic stardom. The most fascinating part of the piece is also the most mundane: the bursting eggs of light along the edges of the central shape (as well as two or three in the center) create a web of fireworks that is oddly mesmerizing but in reality those explosions of static are flights leaving from JFK, LGA, LAX, MIA, DFW, ORD, and ATL.

 Cities Beyond the Horizon

(Copyright Aaron Koblin)

The significance of the light concentration in Koblin’s work shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who finds themselves reading through the information on Next American City. The CIA Factbook —something of a clearinghouse for geopolitical factoids—puts the United States’ urbanization rate at 82%, or about 255 million people, but what does that really mean? According the U.S. Department of Transportation, the entity in charge of city planning because, well, think of how much money a given area needs to spend on getting around, tells us that “[a]n urbanized area is comprised of one or more places and the adjacent densely settled surrounding area together include at least 50,000 people.” A nebulous definition, at best.

The blurred definitions of town, city, and urban area potentially negates the entire concept that many of us have of the traditional American city: a densely populated core with tendrils expanding out towards a less populated, but still packed, periphery. Beyond that are the suburbs and exurbs, which endure those monikers because they are so inherently “un-citylike”, but they are still included in the calculations behind urbanization rates. When did a part of the landscape that urbanists disdain so much become an inextricable part of the movement towards making cities important? And how do we fix it?

Being at the mercy of outdated metrics seems to a global pastime. Most famously, Robert F. Kennedy’s criticism of Gross National Product as a measure of prosperity, and by proxy a majority of the drier economic rubrics, offered that “[GNP] tells us everything about America except why we are proud to be Americans.” Kennedy was not an economist but had a singular talent for accessing the most beatific notions of being American and attempting, until his tragic assassination in 1968, to drive progressivism by appealing to the more emotional angels of magnanimous patriotism. What he was asking for was a more complete way to judge our surroundings and, more specifically, how well people were doing in their every day lives. While concepts like purchasing power parity (how much that paycheck is really worth) and consumer price index (how much things actually cost) have caught on in the U.S., our economic well-being is still based upon the statistically sharp but practically enigmatic concepts of Gross Domestic Product and Gross National Product.

The same argument could be made for cities today. Does all 579 mi2 of Houston, Texas (twice the size of Singapore in terms of land mass and a little more than half the population) count as a city? Of course not, and for everyone that has been to Houston it’s obvious that there are pockets of density where most of the people live and stretches of bucolic perpetuity where people, well, don’t. The USDOT, whose lexicon apparently hasn’t been updated since we used wagon trains to go west, labels the areas of a city with more than 1,000 persons per square mile as “densely settled”.

 Cities Beyond the Horizon

To put that statistic into perspective New York City has a density of 26,402 persons per mi2 while Farmington, New Mexico has a density of 1,613. In terms of urbanization rates these two places are siblings of similar weight but different heights; adobe and steel. The blindly empirical approach to judging how many of us live in “cities” is starting to fray at both ends: we are mathematically urban because of our suburbs, but we are functionally rural because of our cities.

In a vacuum, cities will always be defined by population. A town of 30,000 living on a plot of 30 mi2 in Arizona may look as dense as some parts of Los Angeles on paper but that, as geographically prejudicial as it may sound, does not qualify a place as a city not its people as urban. Urbanization rates need to be reconciled with the unkind realities of affluent modern America: suburbs and highways dominate our landscape. 82% of us do not live in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago but more likely live in Hamden, CT (pop. 58,119) or Lorain, OH (pop. 70,263). Are the latter two cities? According to government definitions, yes. But are they urban?

 Cities Beyond the Horizon

Aaron Koblin’s Flight Patterns gives us a stylized view of America: making out the concave edges of the east coast and the vertical beach chair of the west is easy if you just follow the lights. Cities, usually where those points explode from, are surely the centers of innovation, creativity, and dynamism that thinkers like Richard Florida and Edward Glaeser make them out to be, but they are not where most of us choose to live. More and more young people are attempting to regenerate cities from the inside out and are, as young people are wont, recoiling at the thought of moving back to their detached family homes. Real cities with tangible urbanity are still the exception. We’re not static though, we can shift the demographics and data and give Mr. Koblin and his team another movement to track; not planes but people.

Tower in the Stars

Co-Op City is a good northern boundary for New York City. It’s the first set of real skyscrapers you see driving on Interstate 95 south from New England; they’re sort of a concrete and steel set of Cairn stones leftover from a different age of architecture and urban planning. Most people see the grouping of “+” sign shaped buildings for what they are: an odd post-apocalyptic moonscape of apartment blocks, the type of place Kurt Russell or Jean Claude Van Dam would be trying to escape from in an early 1990’s action movie. Urban planners and, for completely different reasons, artists usually see Le Corbusier.

The French architect, planner, and artist has been the subject of several excellent full-length biographies and studies so I won’t attempt to add the bibliography here, but there’s a certain merit to explaining his most influential legacy: the Radiant City. Le Corbusier imagined the ideal city as a set of lawn darts. Babel-like towers would house thousands of urban dwellers in one area and they would commute —typically via underground trains and highways— to another set of towers where offices and administrative facilities were housed. Everything else would be a fantastic emerald green.*

Co-Op City, along with Government Housing Projects in Chicago, Baltimore, and other parts of New York, is viewed as a condemnation of the entire theory; proof that bigger isn’t better when it comes to urban planning. Large scale theories are not immune to ironies though, and often the critics of house projects look towards what they know best rather than think about the people who actually live in those buildings. Housing Projects are also known by a general non de guerre: affordable housing. The innocuous phrase is simply a euphemism for housing for the poor.

Poverty, at least in this country, begets poverty (his blog has covered the issue of decentralization before albeit in a roundabout way). Poor people do not emigrate to urban areas for the possibility of a better life as they do in India and China; in the U.S. the poor are often already there, mired in low-wage, low-growth “careers”, disproportionately affected by crime, drugs, and unemployment. The slums of Mumbai and Detroit have very little in common; the tide in India, no matter how uneven, still raises all boats. In the U.S. the tide has receded, leaving Greenwich and Lake Forest afloat.v

The emergence of the Radiant city style housing projects in American is a geographical canard. People living in the projects aren’t poor because they live in the projects; they were poor when they got there. But urban planners usually see it the other way around because that’s the overwhelmingly visual proof and it is distinctly visceral. The truth is, while Le Corbusier’s Radiant cities are not practical in theory or in application they aren’t the why, they’re only the where.

vLe Corbusier’s ideas are flawed to be sure (however the vogue of sustainable living has inadvertently led to the reemergence of vertical living, something Le Corbusier championed) but his ideas were never meant to be applied to anything more than urban theory. He was first an artist, more Gehry than Olmsted, and had never visited American soil before his ideas were adopted sight unseen. He was also a shameless self-promoter and was wont to endorse his ideas where there was very little rationale for application. The Radiant City was geared towards the Parlor crowds of Paris when Le Corbusier was working; terrifying to the cultural bastions of vie Parisen (especially his vision of Paris’s future) and fascinating to the industrial minimalists of the day.

* The concepts runs against the grain of Jane Jacobs, a woman whose life’s work was a crusade against the top-down pursuit of Le Corbusier’s Radiant cities. An untrained urban planner, though as a journalist she was a keener observer than theorist, she considered Boston’s North End and New York’s Greenwich Village —her own home— the organic, and superior, foil to Le Corbusier’s ultimately geometric plan. I mention Jacobs very briefly here because I plan on making her the subject of a much more lengthy study in modern urban theory.

Devil’s Advocate | In Defense of Sprawl

Contemporary urban planning literature and thinking is geared towards defeating “sprawl”*, an innocuous word that means different things to different people. For our purposes it is a 4 letters long.

Sprawl —specifically urban sprawl— refers to a natural phenomena associated with sequential advances in technology: reduced temporal and fiscal transportation costs, simple and instant communication, and that zenith of human ingenuity: the Internet. People of means moved out of the city and into the country where there was more room and less poor people. Eventually, these people also received the gift of urban mind-body separation; residents of the suburbs faced only a physical separation from the city rather than a financial and mental decoupling. Hedge-fund managers in Greenwich can manage accounts from their home office commuting only when dictated by emergencies, powerful clients, or tax law. They can also —and this is much more common place now than at any other point in history— eliminate capital costs associated with physical office buildings and do all their business in a virtual outlet, conducting board meetings via webcast and renting office space —in premium zip codes no less— by the hour when the situation calls for it.

The prototypical financial big shot may not serve as an argument for sprawl’s advantages; those businessmen can also avoid income and other taxes by not operating within the city limits per se thus transferring the agglomeration economies of New York to its wealthy suburbs. It does seem, however, that the concept of sprawl is a natural, albeit ironic, extension of collective invention. Cities, often crowded, dirty, and, until recently, sickly, spark invention unlike any other source save for perhaps Universities. The academy is often the refuge of the well heeled though, and cities, instead of being mired in theory, invent out of necessity.

Major metropolitan areas —save for continuously derelict Detroit, East St. Louis, and other rust belt cities— in the United States, however, have solved the issues that plagued them in the earlier part of this century. The remaining blights like education, health care, and crime, are often systemic; cures aren’t likely to come from an agglomeration of knowledge but rather from city administrators and community members. The conflation of knowledge bases in the city are there to deal with uniquely urban issues at-hand though, just as a group of forward-looking agrarians are better suited to deal with yields per acre.

Has the great hollowing of cities affected the American outlook for the worse, though? Surely, environmental impacts are greater outside cities, a point that is made, virtuously, ad infnitum. Outside of those environmental damages though, the American milieu is no different than it was 30 years ago. In fact, crime rates, infant mortality, and “disease” rates are all significantly lower than they were in 1975. While a prevention of defeat is not victory, urban sprawl does not seem to be the wellspring of our current general shortcomings, though I wouldn’t tell that to an urban planner, they might end up using Ms. Jacobs’ book as a weapon.

*In this post we are discussing sprawl in American urban areas. Suburbs, while popular in Western Europe and gaining significant traction in Asia, are uniquely American because of our attraction to open spaces and our evolutionary aversion to crowds and density. Also, this is not an endorsement of urban sprawl as a general practice but more of an intellectual exercise. There is something (significant) to be said about knowing either side of a given theory, especially one so contentious as this.