Archive for the ‘Architecture’ Category

Learning from Las Vegas. A 2013 update

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Learning from Las Vegas. A 2013 update.

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown wrote their famous book, Learning from Las Vegas forty years ago. The book had two well-known ideas:  they divided buildings into either decorated sheds (those  that relied on ornamentation to communicate function) and ducklings (those that communicated their meaning by their physical form and they proposed that the architecture of Las Vegas  was meant to be seen by cars traveling by at 35-40 miles per hour.

I was in Las Vegas recently and I decided to reassess these ideas while there.

1. The decorated shed/duckling dichotomy is still valuable for considering architecture. But we now know that some buildings lie (the New York casino is not really New York). Also, a great many building simply have nothing to say. The curse of many buildings and neighborhoods is that they are dull. Or ugly. The fact that they are trying to say something is irrelevant.

2.  The architecture of the suburban strip may be meant to be observed at 35 miles per hour, but suburban traffic means that these speeds are rarely achieved. The architecture of the big box store behind acres of parking is immediately recognizable. But the slower speeds diminish their impact.

3.  In Las Vegas, new development eliminates the big setback from the street. The buildings now closely hug the sidewalk. So the very urban form the authors were celebrating, the conditions that facilitated the ability to appreciate commercial strips are no longer there.

4. Commercial strip architecture, essentially born in the post war era, is now old and feels dated. It’s not something new and trendy, if under appreciated. It’s what our parents like. It’s time for a new idiom to be born.

New York Streets Neighborhood – Boston

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Henri Lefevbre famously said that urban space is socially constructed. Peter Marcuse elaborated on this by pointing out that urban form is the result of conflict  between groups.  Langley Keys used game theory to describe these conflicts, pointing out that different groups have identifiable strengths and goals they bring into these conflicts and thus the resulting form is the result of compromises and battles between these groups.

But what happens when one group has all the power and has no need or desire to compromise?  The result can be the extreme rebuilding of a neighborhood.  One community that has seen at least a half dozen of these highly unequal battles for space is Boston’s New York Streets Neighborhood.  This project is a case study documenting how extreme inequality can dramatically change urban landscapes.

Model tenements today

Monday, October 8th, 2012

In Boston’s South End, there is a street of buildings built as model tenements over 125 years ago.  It is still affordable with Section 8 agreements covering the 80 units.


The lack of benefits of large projects

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Cities spend millions of dollars on sports arenas and cultural institutions in part because they are thought to help spur development around them. Well, not always.

The Staples Center and the next door convention center (and the Nokia Theater – rumored to be the next home of the Oscar presentations), despite being the home of two basketball teams and a hockey team, sits in a wasteland. The gruesome LA Live is next door – a mediocre attempt at a walkable area that is second rate compared to the Grove over on the Westside. It has an ESPNzone and a Flemings Steakhouse among other chain restaurants. And the Grammys Museum. Yet collectively these institutions have one nothing for the surrounding area. The largest adjacent business is a freestanding Hooters. There are many vacant lots used for parking.

There is a similar problem on the other side if downtown with the Disney Concert Hall. It’s a great building.  But you can’t eat nearby because there are no restaurants. And not much of anything else except some fortress like office buildings and apartments. It doesn’t look like Broad’s Museum of Contemporary Art is going to add to the area either.  Sorry LA.

My guess is that the lack if spinoff effects stems from LA’s automobile problem. First, since downtown is so remote from the rest of the city, no one can arrive early for an event in time to eat. Second, because LA refuses to slow down traffic on downtown streets (memo to the City of LA – ever heard of traffic calming or complete streets?). The area is scary for pedestrians.

The lesson is that building big ticket items is not enough. You need to pay attention to context.

Shame on the American Planning Association – Call Bad Development, Bad

Monday, July 16th, 2012

The American Planning Association held its annual  conference in Los Angeles in April. As part if its conferences, there are a number of “mobile workshops” which take attendees out into the host city to provide educational and learning experiences.   One of these or shops was on the Bunker Hill area of downtown LA. In the words of the conference catalog:

“Explore this transit-oriented, pedestrian friendly remake of a 1950s and ’60s era downtown. ”

The reality of the area is that it is a tragic example if late 20 century redevelopment with fortress architecture, large building setbacks, big blocks, one way streets with fast traffic, mono-uses, and unwalkabke streets. Not to mention that the blurb (though I didn’t go on the tour – it may have discussed) doesn’t talk about the displaced who lived here before the development took place and nowhere appear to be invited back.

Check out the pictures!

Los Angeles - Bunker Hill Area

Los Angeles - Bunker Hill

















The APA should be ashamed of itself for allowing this kind of depictions in its official publications. If these are educational endeavors, they should communicate truths, not falsehoods. It the APA can’t criticize bad urban planning, who can?

Should Modernism be preserved?

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

I love Modern architecture.  One of the highlights of last year was when I visited Phillip Johnson’s spectacular Glass House in New Canaan, CT.  The house has a serenity, an intelligence and a beauty that is difficult to describe in words.  It makes you feel, it makes you connect to it.  I am so grateful it has been preserved and made available to the public.  Other Modern favorites are Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center at Harvard and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Chicago lakefront apartment buildings.  The Seagram Building and Lever Building in New York are must see attractions in my book.

But should all Modern building be saved? No.  Too many are second rate, bad, dysfunctional.  For example, should anyone weep over the Walter Gropius’s MetLife building in New York?  No.  If it were to be torn down, all that we would lose is a firsthand example of how architects can be arrogant or unable to resist the pressure of commerce.

I don’t buy the arguments that someday, we will miss these buildings when tastes change.  A couple of years ago, James Levine presented a Boston Symphony Orchestra season long program of Schoenberg and Beethoven.  After a year of concerts, lectures and exhibits, I still don’t like Schoenberg.  I now understand why I don’t and also understand why after nearly a century, the public doesn’t either.  Modern music fails to resonate with people’s psychic needs.  It doesn’t connect. Much of Modern architecture is the same.  The public is never going to come around.  Stop waiting.  Most of these buildings should go.

Changes in how the “housing problem” has been conceptualized

Monday, April 16th, 2012

One of the more interesting things I learned in writing my book, Building American Public Health, was the various and changing ways that housing problems have been conceptualized. How the housing problem is understood translated very closely into the policies that were adapted in a given era. So as the conceptualization of what was the nature of housing problems changed, so did public policies aimed to promote safe, healthy (and eventually affordable) housing.

Like most of modern public health and urban planning, the idea that the housing problem was a public issue began in England during the Industrial Revolution. At the beginning of this period, there was little legal right to regulate housing and thus many mid 19th century reformers had to struggle to simply assert the right that government regulation of housing was legal and proper. In a sense, the housing problem was the problem of jurisdiction. But only the worst abuses and most horrendous conditions could be addressed in this era. These early reformers established the right to regulate housing, but these regulations were weak. And at the end of this period, housing conditions remained appalling.

In the latter half of the 19th century, a new way of thinking about housing problems emerged. The idea was that the problem centered around the fact that landlords did not know how to produce decent housing that was affordable to low-income tenants and that was economically profitable. At the same time, it was thought that there was a serious problem in that tenants, who were often immigrants into cities from rural areas or abroad.  The reformers at this time believed that tenement dwellers did not know how to live in cities or understand the successful habits of living in high density housing. In a sense, the housing problem was a one of ignorence and a lack of education on the part of both owners and renters.  To meet the problem of ignorence, this era saw the development of the model tenement movement and the settlement house movement, both highly influenced by Octavia Hill, the granddaughter of Thomas Southwood Smith. The model tenement advocates promoted what they called philanthropy at 5%, the idea that safe and healthy housing, affordable to working-class tenants, could be built that provided a profit the property owners.  The model tenements were meant to teach potential property owners how to build such housing. Through the settlement houses, new urban immigrants could be taught the basics of housekeeping and hygiene. Tenants would be taught how to live in these new units. Together, model tenements and model tenants would eliminate the evils in the slums. Ultimately, these movements failed because the model tenement advocates lacked of financial resources to build enough housing for all the poor people poured into cities.  Tenants couldn’t afford safe and decent housing.  The underlying assumptions were incorrect.

By the beginning of 20th century, still another way of characterizing the housing problem emerged, the problem was one of regulation. Lawrence Veiller was perhaps the greatest advocate of this idea, and with his allies he successfully persuaded the New York state legislature to pass a tenement law which became the model for housing laws across the United States. The law included not only detailed ideas on what was to be regulated in how housing was to be lived in, but also standards for setting up public health departments to regulate housing. The goal was to promote the construction of new healthy housing and to regulate the worst abuses of existing housing. Unfortunately housing as a regulatory problem failed to solve the housing needs of the poor as well. Perhaps most problematic was that in general, to meet the political opposition to these laws, existing housing tended to be exempt from the regulations, and the poor tended to cluster in existing unregulated tenements. Improved regulation did little to improve their lot.

It wasn’t until the 1920s, that Edith Elmer Wood examined the wages of unskilled and semiskilled workers and found that what they had available to pay for rent was insufficient to meet the costs of providing healthy housing. In that stroke of genius, Wood made housing an economic problem. The basic issue was how to reduce the cost of housing or enhance the ability of tenants to pay for housing so that safe and affordable housing would be available to the poor. We have tried a number of ways to address housing as an economic problem. There was public housing, which used federal and state dollars to meet the high cost of construction. There are the mortgage subsidy programs which sought to help lower middle class and middle-class people meet the economic challenges of a mortgage. And there is the Section 8 program which seeks to boost the ability of low income households pay the prevailing market rents.

Much of my forthcoming book focuses on this history and what it means for the health of people living in these units.

Does mixed income make for better people and communities?

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

When the American Planning Association met in Boston in 2011, one of the tours included a stop at the housing complex where I live.  It’s a fairly large development for Boston, almost 200 units on an entire city block with 1/3 of the units with Section 8 certificates (for low income families),  1/3 having deed restrictions making them affordable for moderate income households, and 1/3 being sold at market rate.  I came across the tour in the open space in the middle of the development.  I could tell from their badges they were with the APA,  and my curiosity led me to ask what they were doing there.  The nice person first patiently explained they  were with the APA, I counted with my APA conference badge.  Then I was told they were there to see examples of affordable housing.  When I told them I was both a planner and a resident, they peppered me with questions.

It is dangerous to talk about a book one hasn’t read, but Charles Murray’s new book, Falling Apart, has been getting a lot of press and I do intend to read it  His thesis is that higher income, college educated people are isolating themselves from the poor and less educated and as a result, social disorganization and risk behaviors are increasing.  Murray apparently carefully avoids any economic analysis or discussion of the loss of manufacturing jobs and blames this rise of disorganization on the lack of contact between the two groups.  He supposedly suggests that the upper income people move out of their enclaves and live in poorer communities.

This is not a new idea.  It has been a goal of US social policy at least since the 1930s when urban renewal was proposed as a way to break up poor (and often African American) communities.  It was also a goal of the 1990s HOPE VI program.  The idea is that the poor suffer from what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called a culture of poverty.  The poor are impoverished because they adapt and pass on these bad behaviors to the children.  The solution is to have them live near non-poor families with healthy work and social habits.  They will learn to behave better. Some other suggest that they will also be able to benefit from informal networks of job seeking and improve their economic status as well.

Armed with the knowledge (not from the book – it didn’t come out until months later), the APA tour people wanted to know how much interaction there is between the various income groups in my complex. The units are mixed throughout the complex and our market unit is above a moderate income unit and between two Section 8 units, for example. The answer as to the degree of interaction is that there is some but not a lot.  We all pretty much know each other by first name, open doors for each other, hold children when they might get stuck in an elevator and smile at each other.  But there is not a lot of other sharing.  Most people live privately.

One interesting, if unstudied outcome is what contact with the poor might do for middle and upper income political beliefs.  I would think  that a review of voting records might show that the influence flows from the poor to the wealthy.  Upper income people who live in mixed income environments are more likely to vote for liberal social policies.  Mr. Murray may not like that.

One final question did bring everyone in the complex together, a uniformity of response when I told various neighbors about it.  I was asked if residents keep their doors opened and unlocked so that people might visit each other by just walking in, uninvited.  Everyone I told about the question, upper income, moderate income, and subsidized, couldn’t stop laughing at the naiveté of that question.  As one (Section 8) neighbor said as she was laughing so hard that her eyes teared up, don’t those people know we are in New England, no one is that friendly to anyone

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts: Three entrances, three stories

Monday, March 5th, 2012

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is one of the city’s greatest assets.  It is a world class museum that contains extensive collections of American, Impressionist, and Egyptian art, among other great holdings.  It opened a new wing last year that I have already commented on.  One of the more interesting things is that the museum has three entrances.  Each has a lesson for how to build cities to make them more amenable for pedestrians and urban living.

One entrance is through the West Wing, a 1980s addition designed by I.M. Pei and Associates.  Up until a few years ago, it was the only way to enter the museum, the complex’s front door as it were was on the side.  For those who have never been there, the MFA sits on an entire block between two major streets:  Huntington Avenue and the Fenway.  The West Wing entrance was to a parking lot on a minor street that connects the two major arterials.  There was a drive and a drop off to the entrance, but mostly, one entered by wandering through parking lots, some filled with delivery and service vehicles.  It was most inartistic and very unsatisfying and difficult for tourists to navigate.  The MFA, to its credit, has discontinued this entrance, using it only for tour groups.  They recognized the mistake of this most inartistic entrance to a building of high artistic merit.  But the design is important if only as a way to remember how people once thought of cities and cars.  The design reflected the idea that people only travel through cities in cars (despite the fact there is a trolley stop on Huntington Avenue – you exited the street car and had to figure out how to get through the service parking lot to the West Wing entrance).  The design turned its back on urban living and public transportation.  It denied the primacy of walking.  The MFA is to be commended for discontinuing this entrance.

The MFA re-opened its Fenway entrance a couple of years ago as part of its reconfiguring the museum when it began its expansion plans.  The Fenway entrance is grand:  it faces the beautiful parkway  (in the old fashioned sense – it is two lanes, moderate speed, meandering, not a fancy name for a freeway) designed by Frederick Law Olmsted as part of his famed emerald necklace.  The whole façade is a fancy Beaux Art masterpiece, a building that communicates the importance of the MFA to the city.  The entrance is up a broad set of stairs with multistory columns, creating a sense of theater.  A tiny driveway, chained off, fronts the building.

This grand building opens to the Back Bay Fens, but it’s an entrance to nowhere.  The Fenway entrance is not close to public transportation, and it’s a long block away from the nearest parking.  It’s a grand gesture for those who were traveling by in the carriages, or today for people passing in their cars, but it’s not much more than a billboard for the museum itself.  There is a related problem if you enter from the Fenway side, it doesn’t relate to the building’s interior circulation.  We went to the MFA for a concert this afternoon, entered through the Fenway entrance and even though we know the museum very well, it remains disorientating.  If only form followed function.

The MFA’s main entrance is back to where it was originally:  on Huntington Avenue.  The street is a major arterial, but strangely ungrand.  The trolley tracks are set off by so so plantings and there is nothing across the street worthy of the great building itself.  That said, the entrance is what an old great museum should be: reverential, inviting, well placed, monumental.  Given the history of the building, the placement on the Fenway which leads off to nowhere, the 1970s era monument to parking fetishism, and the general plainness of the Huntington Avenue side, the MFA has done the best possible job it could do.