Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

The Witold Rybczynski Interview by Brendan Crain

[ Today I’ll post another installment from the archives of Brendan Crain’s fabulous Where blog. Today an interview with Witold Rybczynski. I’d also like to note that I will not be posting again until Sunday – Aaron. ]

Last week, I posted a review of Witold Rybczynski’s new book, Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville. After talking to a rep at Scribner (who had sent me the book back in June) I got in touch with the author, who agreed to do a Q&A about the book. The following took place over a series of emails this past weekend.


Where: Thanks again for agreeing to do this Q&A for Where. So to start out, in my review of Last Harvest I took issue with your statement that “For the first time in history urbanization does not mean concentration” on the grounds that it undermines the difference between urban and suburban environments. What’s your take on that terminological disagreement?

Witold Rybczynski: Urbanization traditionally brought with it a whole set of particular advantages. By living together in dense concentrations, city dwelllers had access to a set of services, amenities, institutions, and goods that were distinct from what was available to those living in non-urbanized areas, i.e. the countryside. It seems to me that today technology has, for the first time, vastly diminished the advantages of concentration. Of course, mid-town Manhattan still offers unparalleled advantages, but the way of life in an average American city is no longer as vastly different from the way of life in suburban and rural areas as it once was. People may still choose to live in one place or another, but unlike in the past, concentration no longer offers decisive advantages in education, communications, employment opportunities, availability of goods, culture, and so on. It is not I who have undermined the difference, but society.

W: But does the decentralization of most cities really diminish the difference between urban and suburban neighborhoods? I would argue that it makes the contrast between the two stronger, more readily apparent. Decentralization has not cheapened urban environments…as the recent “revitalization” of many cities has shown, suburbanization has led to an increased appreciation of the distinct advantages that urban places offer. I guess, at this point, it would be good to have you explain what “urban” signifies to you.

WR: Think of the difference between “town” and “country” one hundred years ago. It was absolute and affected what you ate, how you lived, the amenities to which you had access, and much more. I would argue that today the differences between amenities, resources, etc. available to someone living in an exurb outside Denver or Pittsburgh, and living in downtown Denver or Pittsburgh, while they have not disappeared, are slight. The fact that information, medical care, education, entertainment, and so on have dispersed is significant. I am not aruing that there are no differences at all, but rather that they have, for most people, diminished to the point of being trivial. Nor is the balance weighted to the city, as it once was. Suburban Philadelphians, for example, have more choice in department stores or food stores, than those living in Center City. On the other hand, we all have equal access to Netflix and Amazon.

At this point in our history, urban means all of us who live in metropolitan areas, downtown, city neighborhoods, suburbs, and fringe areas.

I think that the “urban” that you describe, and which is what is described in the so-called “renaissance” refers to those who live in downtowns, who are generally either young professionals or retired people, and a small number of empty nesters. This is probably not more than 5 percent of the total city population.

Center City Philly has about 70,000 residents (very large for a US downtown), while the city has 1.5 million, so 5% is conservative, for most cities.

W: In a recent interview with Business Week, you were asked whether New Urbanism and Neotraditional Developments like New Daleville were in the vein of Jane Jacobs’ brand of urbanism and you confirmed that you did, indeed, believe them to be very similar. I agree to an extent — they do aim to achieve many of the same things Jacobs championed. But Jane focused heavily on density as a critical aspect of successful urbanism (and, from what I remember, did not think much of New Urbanist development), so how do you reconcile the extremely low (by compairison to her professed ideal) densities of these developments with the fact that they claim to aim for a rather Jacobsian ideal?

WR: Jacobs definitely espoused density + a mixture of uses. In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” she wrote almost exclusively about Greenwich Vilage, which is an extreme example of both. I don’t think you have to interpret Jacobs literally to be influenced by her, and like almost all town planners post-DLGAC, the New Urbanism movement has found inspiration in her writing. It is true, as Robert A. M. Stern pointed out in his recent adress to the CNU convention in Philadelphia a few months ago, that the accomplishments of New Urbanism have had more to do with suburbs than with city centers so they have usually been built at lower densities. That has partly to do with the market in the 1980s, when New Urbanism started. Today, a few developers have figured out how to do high-density, mixed-use and we are seeing more new construction along those lines (Atlantic Yards, for example).

Incidentally, all ideas in urbanism that start out as ideologies (Charles Mulford Robinson’s city beautiful, Howard’s garden city, Jacobs, McHarg, DPZ) get severely compromised by the time they have gone through the sausage machine of the market. In the 1960s, did Jacobs imagine that her Village would become an expensive enclave? I doubt it.

W: The Village is certainly not what it was in the 1960s, but that has a great deal to do with people rejecting the aesthetics and isolation of the suburbs. The prices of places with a strong sense of place are rising specifically because of characterless development, which is what New Urbanism aims to change. It makes sense, then, that most of the successful NU developments would be outside of the urban core, but the one thing that the oft-cited examples (Seaside, Newpoint) share is a great attention to detail. After observing the development of New Daleville and comparing the outcome with other NU developments you’ve seen, how important do you think this attention to details is to successful New Urbanism?

WR: Attention to exterior detail in neotraditional developments is important. Partly it has to do with establishing a sense of place, partly with the houses being close to the street, hence more visible. I think that equally important is a marketing issue. Neotraditional development is not cheap to implement, since there is landscaping, street details, money spent on the public realm, usually a more expensive permitting process. The builder finds himself in the position of selling a house on a small lot for the same price as a house on a large lot. To offset the competitive disadvantage, builders have found that spending more on design and details of construction makes the house more attractive to buyers. The details at New Daleville included metal porch roofs, porch columns, solid front doors, often with side-lights, shutters, decorative moldings. The overall effect is to make the house appear more solid. The discovery that people will accept higher density in return for a sense of place and good design was one of the key discoveries of Seaside.

Incidentally, prices in places with a strong sense of place are not always higher. There are plent of attractive old villages that are languishing. Location is still an important factor. The first generation of neotraditional developments were in booming real estate markets—that helped a lot. At New Daleville, prices were initially set high (in the hope that people would pay more for detail), but as the market slow-down set in, prices were lowered significantly. This has had a positive effect on sales, and New Daleville now has the lowest prices in the area. But profits are lower than they were initially.

W: Speaking of money, much of the hesitation of the residents of Londonderry toward New Daleville seemed to have come from the fear of how increased density would affect land values in the area. How have things played out in the months since you finished Last Harvest?

WR: I think the general resistance to development from communities arises from the fact that new residents will mean more traffic on the roads, more children in the schools (hence higher schol taxes), and of course, development means the loss of views of open landscape, which is what originally drew people to the rural location. This is quite irrespective of density, except that lower density means less of all the above, so if development must take place, folks would prefer that density be as low as possible.

The other issue is that everyone wants their neighbor’s house to be more expensive than their own—not cheaper. So people are very resistant to having new housing that will cost less than what is already there. That is why it is so difficult to build affordble housing—nobody wants it in their neighborhood. By the way, New Daleville consists only of detached single-family houses. When I asked the developer, Joe Duckworth, about this, he said that he could have included town houses, but that would have made getting approval even more difficult, so he didn’t risk it.In Last Harvest I describe a town meeting at which Joe mentions that the future houses at New Daleville will cost about $200,000, which satisfied the neighbors. In fact, the New Daleville houses started at $340,000 when the sales office opened, although prices have now dropped to about $270,000. This is still more than the price of existring houses, so it is unlikely that New Daleville will negatively impact surrounding land values.

W: It’s sort of ironic that two of the three worries that you listed as being associated with higher density in the suburbs — increased automobile traffic and loss of natural open space — are two of the biggest concerns of urbanists regarding suburban and especially exurban development, yet the two sides view these problems from slightly different angles. All of it, as you note in your book, gets lumped together as “sprawl.” This seems to support your claim that sprawl is actually a myth, a scapegoat for change.

WR: As I wrote in Last Harvest, sprawl is always perceived as somebody else’s fault. I think there are serious issues to be addressed in a country with a growing population and technologies that permit decentralization–and plenty of space–but the concept of sprawl has not so far proved useful in resolving the issues. It seems destined to reinforce entrenched positions, rather than finding a solution. Which is a shame. We need another model, that permits discussion rather than merely argument.

W: Any ideas of what that might be?

WR: I don’t. But I do hope that it will be based on something other than prejudice, misinformation, and self-interest. Actually, replacing one simplistic model by another would not achieve much. I’m hoping that readers of Last Harvest come away with an appreciation of the complexity of the community building process. That would be a start.

This post originally appeared in Where on July 17, 2007.

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

Bizarrchitecture by Brendan Crain

[ Here’s another from the Where blog archives – hope you enjoy – Aaron. ]

Rising 177 feet over the Argentine city of Mendoza is Edificio Gomez (built in 1954), which is one of the most…interesting buildings I think I’ve ever come across.

Before we get into Gomez, though, a bit of background on Mendoza. The city, home to approximately 111,000 people (with 850,000 in the metropolitan area), is located at the foot of the Andes and is known for its exquisite beauty — it’s nickname is “The Oasis City.” It started out in 1561 with the traditional 5×5 block town plan surrounding a central square and Catholic church that the Spanish used for basically every city they built when colonizing South America. The dimensions of this plan (streets, sidewalks, lot sizes) were notoriously rigid, leading to a rather uniform look to the central areas of many South American towns. But when a massive earthquake leveled Mendoza in 1861, it was rebuilt with much more generous spatial allottments. Sidewalks and streets were widened, trees were planted, more expansive plazas laid out, and one of the city’s most unique features — a series of stone irrigation ditches that run along the streets to water the trees — was created. In fact, Mendoza is considered by some to be the most beautiful city in Argentina — a steep claim, considering that this country can claim the likes of Salta, Tucumán, and Buenos Aires (the Paris of the Americas).

So, with a reputation like that, how does Mendoza explain Edificio Gomez? Just look at this thing. It’s…I don’t even know what it is. It’s bizarrchitecture, that’s for sure. The verticality of the campanille is impressive…I’ll bet the thing looks three times its height from the sidewalk. Or at least it would if the architect hadn’t wrapped it in an industrial riverfront warehouse from Cleveland circa 1940. Seriously, what is that? And then there’s the crown, which is…it’s just sublime. The above photo was the first image I’d ever seen of the tower, with the crown peeking over the trees in the central Plaza España. Without the bulk of the building, the crown has an instant “Holy hot spiky messes, Batman, what IS that?” effect. It looks like the bastard child of Antonio Sant’Elia and Fritz Lang. Or of their buildings, anyway. Whatever. Words fail.

From what I can gather, the building was designed by someone named Civit, who “based” it on the art deco towers of 1920s Manhattan. At first, when I read that, I got excited at the prospect of the Forgotten Continent (oh please, everyone both knows and cares about Africa; but who can find Bolivia on a map?) coming complete with its own forgotten Insane/Visionary Modernist Architect With a Vaguely Industrial-Sounding Psuedonym (Corbu del Sur!). Alas, the guy’s full name was Manolo Civit. How droll.

Honestly, I am totally crazy about this building, and I can’t really figure out why. It doesn’t even really fit in the ugly-chic category that Jean Nouvel has been blazing a trail through lately. It lacks the self-awareness and the extra three pieces of flare. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s utterly unique? Or that it looks like the watchtower-clubhouse of an eccentric and reclusive manchild? Or that they light it up at night like some kind of baroque prison Christmas tree? I don’t know. It could be any of those things. I just know that I like what I see.

There have been several recent articles and blog posts listing the authors’ nominations for the world’s ugliest buildings, and I think that it’s worth noting that Edificio Gomez didn’t make any of them. Granted, that might have something to do with the fact that it’s an extremely obscure building from an obscure city in a country that I’d be willing to bet at least 50% of “US Americans” have never heard of…but let’s give Gomez the benefit of the doubt and say that it missed the lists because it is not, in fact, ugly. Instead, it is just completely bizarre. And really, that’s much more fun anyway.

At any rate, stumbling on the Edificio Gomez has me wondering what other wacky architectural curiosities are hiding out there in the gazillion little cities around the world that I’ve never heard of. Is there such a thing in your city? If so, please share. In the meantime, let’s enjoy Gomez in all of his…erm…glory.

(Photos from Panoramio users Emiliano Homrich [1] and Leandro Luis Targon-Gomez [3], and Flickr user elpollo [2].)

This post originally appeared in Where on September 27, 2007.

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Five Innovation Myths Applied to Urbanism by Brendan Crain

[ I’ll remind you again that Where is an awesome site. Here’s another sample from it by Brendan Crain for you – Aaron. ]

A recent CEOs for Cities post pointed out a great article by Dev Patnaik that outlined five common mistakes made by businesses looking to be innovators. All of them, in one way or another, dealt with the myth of the silver bullet, and the article made a clear and concise argument for the importance of institutional context and diversified methodology. The myths that Patnaik does away with are all important for urbanists to consider as cities work to position themselves as both innovative places and as incubators of economic and technological innovation. On top of that, responding to context (cities each have very different conditions, physically and economically) and diversification (urban problems are both numerous and intrinsically interconnected, and there is no one solution to anything) are particularly applicable. The following is a breakdown, in urbanism terminology, of Patnaik’s ideas.

• Over-reliance on high-profile, “sexy” projects

The Guggenheim Bilbao made just as big a splash in the fields of urban planning and policy as it did in architecture. Now, it’s a commonly-held belief that cities can build megaprojects that will catapult them into the international spotlight and trigger a surge of prosperity. In reality, even when such projects are independently successful they are never the silver bullet that was imagined. Chicago’s Millennium Park, for example, is by all accounts a huge success as a public space and tourist attraction. Still, it was a financial fiasco, and the glamour and goodwill afforded the city by the park is now being squandered by the miserable failure of the city’s transit system — a battle in which the City of Chicago is too strapped to play any meaningful role. Big projects can be important to cities, but it’s even more important to pay close attention to what trade-offs will need to be made in terms of basic services (transit ain’t the only thing hurtin’ in Chicago) in order to pull off a good piece of stunt urbanism. Millennium Park is an innovative piece of landscape architecture, but as an urban regenerator it’s as archaic as they come.

• Unhealthy fascination with unique, charismatic civic leaders

Michael Bloomberg, Gavin Newsome, and Ken Livingstone all command a considerable amount of media attention for their efforts to improve their cities. This innovation red herring is especially potent in urbanism: everyone loves a superstar mayor. And while these mayors can teach us a lot, it is important to remember that the best and most innovative mayors from the past (Jaime Lerner is a prime example) were willing to take risks; that is to say that great mayors have often made names for themselves by bucking trends and trying new ideas that were responsive to their specific cities rather than following standard procedures being replicated, cut-and-paste style, in other cities.

• Misapplication of other cities’ approaches

Building on the previous point, it is often assumed that because Idea X worked in City Y, it will be equally successful in City Z. This is absurd. Take, for instance, the public transportation system in Medellín. The city’s 3.2 million inhabitants live in a long, narrow valley. While the central part of the city, located in the lowest and flattest part of the valley, is served by a standard subway system, the densely populated neighborhoods that climb up the western hillsides are served by the Metrocable, a cable-car line that has become very successful both as a transit line and — to the delight of city officials — a tourist attraction that has helped (along with other projects) to lower crime and improve the economic outlook for the neighborhood’s poorer residents. The lesson to be learned here for other cities is that unconventional transit options can be worth the risk if they are properly tailored to the needs of the community. The misapplication of this lesson would be for a flat city to assume that building a cable car would be a good idea since it worked in Medellín. This is a relatively simple illustration, but you get the idea.

• Descent into a cycle of self-recrimination

Pittsburgh, the oddball city so dear to my own heart, is the poster child for this kind of thinking. Many Pittsburghers labor under the assumption that their city is suffering because it is unable to hold onto the talented young people who graduate from major universities in the area like the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University. (In fact, Pittsburgh has an unusually high rate of retention of its young natives). Pittsburghers see Creative Class capitals like San Francisco and Austin attracting large numbers of young creative types and makes the assumption that it is not cool enough to compete. Untold energy is put into trying to make the city cooler and more attractive to young people. Meanwhile, the draconian tax system that discourages start-ups (the number that exist regardless of this fact is a testament to the city’s unrealized potential) go unchanged because Pittsburgh fails to realize that music festivals and extensive bike paths aren’t going to save the city. The Burgh was a global hub of commercial and technological innovation at the turn of the 19th century. To be successful today, all cities (Pittsburgh included) would do well to look back at their strongest points and learn how to replicate that kind of success.

• Resignation to superficial changes

Patnaik uses the example “Let’s just paint the walls purple” to mock companies’ shallow understanding of the funky interiors of creative business HQs — most famously, the Googleplex. Cities have a long and storied history of believing in the power of cosmetic changes only to be let down by the results. A phenomenon that you might call Trinket Urbanism had a death grip on North American cities until relatively recently as every city rushed to have their version of one-off amenities built in other cities. Baltimore’s Festival Harbor spawned a gazillion of those so-called “Festival Marketplaces.” Arenas were all the rage throughout much of the 1990s. Making a city more attractive is certainly not a bad idea, but there is a dangerous perceived correlation between beautification and prosperity. Flowering medians do not a center of innovation make.

Innovation Mistakes (CEOs for Cities)

Five Common Mistakes in Innovation (Business Week)

This post originally appeared in the Where Blog on October 31, 2007. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Brutalism: Worth Saving? by Brendan Crain

Metropolis currently features an article on the impending demolition of Marcel Breuer’s Ameritrust Tower in Cleveland. The article reads like a sort of half-hearted defense of the tower and Breuer’s body of work, but the sentiment here seems to be pro-preservation, not so much pro-Breuer. It’s sort of like the ACLU defending a KKK member’s free speech for the sake of protecting free speech itself.

It is a commonly-held belief, understandably so after the devastating social and artistic destruction wrought by the so-called Urban Renewal movement, that the destruction of a building purely on the basis of its being “ugly” or out of fashion is a very dangerous thing. I don’t disagree. But I do wonder what can be said for Brutalism, a style of architecture frequently criticized for its indifference to context and its tendancy to be overly conceptual — to the point of being dehumanizing — in terms of its value in contemporary society.

It seems futile to debate the merits of one architectural style over another, but there are functional components to style that do, I think, make buildings from some architectural movements of lesser worth to society based on the fact that they do not produce an environment that is conducive to human activity. Brutalism is a style of design that focused on materials and structural honesty (what Wikipedia cutely refers to as “the celebration of concrete.”) It is part of a failed utopian vision centered on a kind of rigid equality. It is a style that, as a movement on the whole, failed to acknowledge the messy, blurry lines of human nature. It’s no wonder that people can’t relate to Brutalist buildings, then, because they are based on a stark idealism that most human beings either don’t understand, or flat out reject.

So what can be said for buildings that were designed without people — the real, unidealized kind — in mind. Are these buildings worth saving for some sort of artistic merit? Are they worth saving in order to make a point? And if the cost of preserving them is a less human environment, does what we gain by preserving Brutalist structures, in terms of ideals and ideas, offset that cost?

Farewell, Marcel (Metropolis)

Ameritrust Tower

This article originally appeared in Where on April 6, 2007. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Conscious Urbanism: The Heidelberg Project by Brendan Crain

[ I’m extremely delighted to be able to begin sharing today a series of posts that previously appeared in the Where blog. This blog, which ran from 2007 to 2010, was one of the single most inspiring urbanist sites on the web. Originally a project of Brendan Crain, it grew into a very popular group site before going the way of all blogs. I’ve previously shared some material from Where contributor Drew Austin, and I’m stoked that Brendan himself has allowed me to re-post some of his pieces as well. They certainly deserve to be read far and wide. Brendan himself is not blogging at the moment that I’m aware of, but some of his old Where contributors are still going over at Polis, which is definitely worth checking out for an international take on cities. Thanks so much to Brendan and I hope you all enjoy these posts that will appear in the coming weeks and months. – Aaron ]

As the city that has fallen on the hardest times (in America, at least), Detroit has the most potential as a proving ground for new solutions. The city is a massive laboratory for urban theorists, developers, and boosters alike. How, many wonder, can Detroit be saved? Or can it be saved at all? Certainly one of the more interesting answers to these questions has come from Tyree Guyton, the man behind the Heidelberg Project, which has appropriated several blocks of the city’s near east side into a spectacularly off-the-wall community art project/revitalization effort.

It’s certainly not what you’d traditionally refer to as “revitalization,” but that’s kind of the point. On its website, the Heidelberg Project explains its vision thusly: “The Heidelberg Project envisions neighborhood residents using art to come together to rebuild the structure and fabric of under-resourced communities and to create a way of living that is economically viable, enriches lives, and welcomes all people.” What this translates to in the physical environment of Heidelberg Street is a collection of abandoned houses — and their surroundings — covered in murals, knick-knacks, mannequins, coins, pie tins, pieces of repurposed trash, stuffed animals, and (literally) just about anything else you could think up. It’s like the Watts Towers, but even more organic.

The Heidelberg Project teaches people who live and have grown up in desolate surroundings how they can change the public spaces that make up their neighborhood and how this change can affect them. It serves as an inspiration and a source of hope. So, of course, the city government has tried to kill the project several times. It has demolished a number of homes that were a part of the project on several different occasions, even though Heidelberg Street is an internationally-recognized project that attracts 275,000 visitors each year. As the project’s Executive Director, Jenenne Whitman, observes, the fact that the city tried so hard to “squash the project … shows how powerful art can be.” Indeed.

In contemporary society, public places themselves are not often thought of as art; actually, they are more often viewed as containers for art. The design of high-end contemporary places is sometimes considered artistically merited, it’s true. But the more interesting and subtle artistic expression in the public realm is community usage. The creation of great places, after all, absolutely requires heavy human interaction. This is usually considered a confirmation of the artistic integrity of the place’s design, but is it not an art form in and of itself? After all, don’t communities transform unplanned spaces into vibrant public places as frequently if not moreso than they do planned places?

The bustle of urban streets and other public spaces in the city is sometimes refered to, quite poetically, as a great pedestrian ballet. And if this is true, it can be logically assumed that, while policy and planning choreograph parts of this ballet, each individual person moving through the city takes part in its choreography by making their own independent choices. People go to parks and plazas and promenades for so many reasons: to eat, to play, to run, to chat, to meet, to dance, to stroll. And by doing so, each person becomes an artist, taking part in the endless urban ballet. Simply to use the city, to exist within it, is a work of art. It’s a lovely idea, no?

The Heidelberg Project is a very concrete visual manifestation of this ballet. It teaches the disenfranchised and the isolated how to shape the world around them into something beautiful. In a way, it is the most public kind of public place: the kind where the planned social infrastructure failed, and the people moved in, did what they do, and created something really useful.

The Heidelberg Project
Heidelberg Turns 21 (Model D) (Photo credit)

This post originally appeared in The Where Blog on August 27, 2007.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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