Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Down But Not Out

The Green Housing Collaborative is still alive and kicking, but given the current economic situation, increased interest in utilizing vacant spaces, and the success of my other project -- People's Parking Lot (PPL) -- I have not had as much time to devote to the GHC blog. Rest assured that in a few months, when I begin my doctoral program at UW, I will have much more to say, but, in the interim, I suggest that you turn your attention to PPL because that's where the action is.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Public Service Announcement

The Capitol Hill Community Council elections are coming up next Thursday, June 25th, and will be held at the Cal Anderson shelter house (between the park itself and the ball fields), at 7:00 PM. Click here for more info about the candidates.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Activating Vacant Space via Social Media

This post is an expanded hybrid of several posts from the People's Parking Lot site.

In response to the demolition of a treasured strip of local businesses in Seattle, I put together a quick video calling for the takeover of the resulting vacant lot. My intentions were mixed: part of me was bored, another part frustrated; I wanted something to happen but I didn't know how to make it happen. So I turned to the internet to complain, rabble-rouse, and instigate: a familiar reaction by much of the blogging community. This would mark the second blog I'd started in a year that was supposed to be the virtual seed of real-life action -- a tall order, I now realize -- but it would also be by far the most effective.

Upon sharing my work with the author of a neighborhood blog, I was approached, via my blog, by one of the organizers of a community garage sale to try and secure this empty lot for a community space. As one of the densest neighborhoods in the city, many residents are without garages and would benefit from an open and visible location.

Of course, my only credentials for approaching the property owners were a video calling for guerilla occupation of their site and a blog that attracted a few readers a day. Luckily, I had just met an industrious individual on a social networking site for design professionals who had a friend working for the (notoriously absent) property owner. Through this connection, I emailed a principal who authorized the use of the space, after reading a proposal that my connection had reviewed (without his review, I wouldn't have known how to approach the property owners; I wouldn't have known that liability would be their major concern, nor would I have thought that the free PR would have been of value to them).

After securing a single-event insurance policy and spreading word of the sale via the aforementioned neighborhood blog, I awoke yesterday morning to walk down to the site. As I approached, I couldn't believe my eyes: there really were about forty sales setting up. People were strolling onto the lot for the first time in months.

My partner -- whom I met five days earlier after she saw my video though a link on another group's email list -- had an easel and a stack of post-it notes, and was ready to ask the attendees what else they wanted to see on the lot. After several hours we had ideas ranging from the immediately practicable (outdoor movies) to the whimsical (corn maze).

In the last few days, the emails from interested folks have been coming in regularly. My blog now gets about 25 hits a day and the facebook group that was only me and my wife six weeks ago has 30 members. With this combination of virtual and real-life exposure and brainstorming, plus a property owner that is open to sharing their space, it looks as if we have the seeds of a internet-based, grassroots neighborhood movement. Who knows what, if anything, will come of it, but from my current vantage point -- that is, looking at this empty lot in the middle of a vibrant urban neighborhood -- the possibilities seem endless.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

(Huge) Garage Sale Saturday!

Check out the 2009 Capitol Hill Garage Sale Roster here. Of 78 registered sales, 38 will be on the lot. Please come by and plan to stay a while.

People's Parking Lot will have a table set up where we will be brainstorming your ideas for the future of this space.

And if you have a buck or two to spare -- to help cover the insurance premium cost -- tip jars will be available.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Garage Sale at the People's Parking Lot!

Since the destruction of the 500 block of East Pine – former home to Capitol favorites like the Cha Cha Lounge, Bus Stop, and Kincora Pub – to make way for another bread loaf of a condo development, the block has been anything but “vibrant.” After neighborhood residents called the city on its lax enforcement of development standards and the economic crisis made construction projects less feasible, the project was put on hold, hastily paved over, and stood for a short time as a parking lot (a use not permitted by its current zoning). For the last few months, the lot has served mainly as a repository for beer cans and a shortcut for pedestrians, though it has also been inspiration for one painter, and the subject of an amateur video calling for occupation by the neighborhood residents.

However, the lot is poised to regain its status as a social center of the neighborhood, for one day at least. The Second Annual Capitol Hill Garage Sale– sponsored by the Capitol Hill Seattle Blog,Unpaving Paradise, Sustainable Capitol Hill, and People’s Parking Lot – has been granted permission by the property owner, Pine and Belmont LLC (Murray Franklyn of Bellevue), to use the spot as a community garage for all the apartment dwellers that want to participate on June 13th. It is free to participate in the sale but registration is due by June 10th.

This event also stands as an example of the power of social media to connect similarly minded people and allow them to, in this case, have an effect on the built environment, or its use at least. In an age where it is easy to join a facebook group or author and read blogs, without actually doing anything – slacktivism, as they call it – some might consider this small victory inspirational.

In the wake of Unpaving Paradise being awarded $150,000 of park levy funds for the conversion of another Capitol Hill parking lot to a P-patch, could this event be construed as evidence a shift from auto-centric and generally top-down development patterns to a more community-based future, focusing on the needs and desires of current residents? Are we going to get a nice public plaza or a handsome building with local shops at grade on this site? I doubt it, but it is refreshing to see positive use coming out of spaces that sit empty in one of most active neighborhoods in the city.

Information Technology

In a recent post I wrote about some steps that LEED could take to provide a better assessment of the "real" sustainability of a building. That is, considering the sustainability not just for the building itself but the use, the activity, that takes place within the walls. I suggested that a digital sign displaying statistics related to sustainability might be a way to publicize the building's and its occupants' performance. Lo and behold, I found a sign on the Pacific Science Center in Seattle that is displaying the carbon emissions for far more than the building itself, but for the entire county.

I'm sure reactions to this board cover the spectrum from anger to embarrassment to indifference to pride, but the real victory is that the information is there, glaring us in face, quietly counting the metric tons (one every 1.37 seconds) of carbon that our county adds to the atmosphere. If the first step to solving problems is awareness, this certainly seems like a good start. So, what's next?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Polish Lights

Not necessarily "green" but certainly a "collaborative" project...

Good Riddance GM

It's even harder to feel bad -- not that I ever did -- about GM's bankruptcy after seeing this ad.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

LEED Evolution

Expanding on what I previously wrote about LEED for retail, the idea of considering the use of a building when determining its sustainability could be applied to other types of structures like, say, office buildings. Take a new sixty story tower in Chicago that pre-qualified for LEED Gold as an example: an evolved LEED system might ask such questions as:

1) What kind of businesses will be tenants? For example, a traditional oil business would be a strike while an environmental consultant would earn points.
2) How will the employees get from home to the office? Single occupancy vehicles or transit?
3) Will recycling and composting be available and used? (I worked in a Unico-owned building in Seattle where composting was available.)
4) If air travel is required, will the tenants offset their carbon? (my previous employer sent employees all over the world in the name of profit-seeking; I can't even fathom the carbon footprint of this portion of the business operation.)

Integrating such "sustainable business practices" into the ranking of sustainability for the building might also lead to more dynamic public relations. Rather than the USGBC plaque inside the front door, maybe a digital sign -- like a sanguine version of the national debt clock -- is mounted over the front doors and displays statistics related to sustainability and ranks the building in comparison with its neighbors. Further competition between tenants in the same building could also be encouraged, publicized, and rewarded.

This sort of "synergy" between tenants and landlords might also be a less expensive ways for owners of older buildings to get involved with LEED: expensive renovations to meet LEED for Existing Building standards might be postponed -- especially in the current economy -- but rent credits could be extended to tenants shifting to more sustainable business practices.

This is, of course, not meant to detract from the sustainable features of the building itself but, rather, to encourage a more robust ranking system that better represents the impact of a building's existence on the natural environment.

Monday, June 1, 2009

LEED for Retail

Full disclosure: I am a LEED AP but, while working as a structural engineer, I (unsurprisingly) never had a chance to put my accreditation to use.

Upon reading a post entitled Sustainability Needs Educated Consumers on Sustainable Cities Collective, I was reminded of an issue regarding consumerism and sustainability that I have been meaning to explore: LEED for Retail. Backtracking quickly, the author of aforementioned article argues correctly that consumers have the tools (namely the internet) to educate themselves about how sustainable a product is before purchasing it. He notes that, unfortunately, we are unaccustomed to researching products ahead of time and seldom take into account the processes behind the product: material, production, packaging, shipping; that is, the "whole picture" required to ascertain whether or not the product in question is indeed sustainable.

Extending this line of thinking to the buildings in which these products are sold brings us to the subject at hand, LEED for Retail. My question is, can a sustainable building that sells unsustainable wares really be considered sustainable?

Take a hypothetical Wal-Mart in a retrofitted Brooklyn warehouse, replete with LED lighting, a green roof that collects rainwater for the fire protection system, located within blocks of the subway and bus lines, with solar panels on the roof, low VOC paint on the walls and bamboo floors, and you still have a Wal-Mart. Under the current business model it would sell toys, clothes and household goods that were made thousands of miles away in China, shipped across the Pacific, loaded on trucks, driven to distribution centers, transferred to delivery trucks, driven to the store, and stocked by folks who might have lost their job at a local store when Wal-Mart came to town.

Sustainable? I think not. Is building a LEED certified version of the store better than the traditional model? Yes...but wouldn't a comprehensive ranking system for sustainability focus on the use of the building rather than just the building itself?

I realize that such an assessment of the complete business operation is outside the USGBC's purview, but I wonder if, at least, any of the four innovation credits could be attained by selling, say, locally produced goods? In the most recent rating system (July 2008), a provision that automatically grants one credit for "green housekeeping" -- which is certainly a form of building use, though not its primary function -- has been struck from the innovation credits, but its ephemeral existence is reassuring.

As LEED (or other systems?) continues to evolve, it seems that the idea of exploring the "whole picture" -- the use of the building by its occupants, rather than just the building itself -- stands as the equivalent of understanding the processes that went into the production of your favorite new gizmo, doodad or thingamajig.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Critical Mass

Those of you reading in Seattle are likely aware of Friday's Critical Mass (CM) ride, or have at least heard of the rides, which occur in cities around the world. As a part-time bicycle commuter, I am enamored by CM both because I am tired of seeing cyclists banished to the edges of roads and, of course, because it looks like fun. I also have a soft spot for any sort of event that involves crowds of people taking action in the street.

Imagine my disappointment when I came across a post on SLOG about the event and started reading through the 200+ comments, most of which were penned by cyclists who disapprove of the event or by other (driving and non-driving) citizens that find it ludicrous and hope for cars to crash into the mass of riders. While there is, of course, no editorial control over the comments section, I'm troubled by both the backlash that such a "revolutionary" (this word is meant in a positive sense, whether or not you interpret it as such) event creates and the cavalier attitude towards loss of human life.

The disapproving cyclists have a point: the event is disruptive and is planned to interfere with the maximum amount of traffic, thereby infuriating the maximum number of drivers and possibly working against bicycle advocacy. Conversely, the road rage-esque rants from many of the other commenters are, in my opinion, founded on nothing but acceptance of our "modern" autocentric "culture" and spite directed at bike-riding hipsters: I'm not sure which disturbs me more. And these reactions shouldn't surprise me: in writing about the Protestant Reformation (revolution) in 16th Century, Jacques Barzun notes that during such times "manners are flouted and customs broken. Foul language and direct insult become normal..." So the comment section on the Stranger's blog is not unlike 16th Century Germany in this respect. No surprise there, though I always have higher hopes for the people of this city.

And in the defense of all CM critics, I must admit that I think Critical Mass took it too far by riding onto the viaduct. Their cause is supposedly to gain safe access to the streets. Bicycles have no business on the viaduct and, while this move certainly garnered them some attention, it also made them look like a bunch of outlaws (but it still looked fun).

The real reason for this post is that I want to explore the concept of CM for a minute. Though there are many threads one could follow in trying to do this, I think revisiting what Jean Baudrillard wrote in his essay The Beaubourg Effect applies nicely to this situation.

Take the street grid -- packed with cars moving to and fro -- as a fluid flow or wave (as transportation engineers do when they design signal timing) as our Beaubourg (at least the real Beaubourg circulates humans in their true form rather than encapsulated in automobiles): rather than itching to see every last cultural artifact, the drivers strive to navigate the city in complete unimpeded freedom: to and from work, to and from daycare or school, to the supermarket, the bank, the mall -- any one or combination of "an incessant circulation of choices," as Baudrillard writes -- insatiably.

Whereas in Baudrillard this build up of motion and energy (violence) itself would become the force that "make(s) Beaubourg bend!," in the case of CM it is a splinter group -- a group trying to navigate the flow, to participate, but being bullied and ignored and tread upon -- that leads to the (Baudrillard's celebrated/many people's feared) implosion. One comment on SLOG compared CM to riots in Compton, which are a perfect example of implosion due to tension and anger. CM is the same urban reality: a concentration of human energy, connecting via shared interests and/or frustrations and acting in a manner that seems appropriate.

Whether or not it is right, smart, legal (freedom of public assembly?), safe, or effective seems to be a moot point. The point I see is that it is happening and I predict (and hope) that the internet serves as a tool to promote such action (assuming that it is toward positive ends, like infrastructure for cyclists). But judging by the SLOG comments, I'm afraid that an implosion among the drivers is a-brewing, and that is a frightening possibility, but an unsurprising one that appears to be a natural response to CM itself.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Another public rally here in Seattle, this time over the Prop 8 ruling in California.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bike Ride

'Twas a beautiful weekend here in Seattle and I spent part of Memorial Day on my bicycle. My ride took me from Capitol Hill through Eastlake, across the University Bridge, along the Burke Gilman trail to the Ballard locks, across into Magnolia and to the waterfront trail, past the sculpture park, into downtown and back home. I brought my camera but only took a few photos, three of which I'll be sharing here.

The first is a house (or maybe duplex?) on Lakeview Boulevard, a few blocks away from the historic Egan House. While the latter is celebrated as a Modernist Northwest gem, this structure seems to be the bastard child of a suburban faux craftsman McMansion and the Bauhaus Dessau. Assuming that the freeway immediately in front of the house is out of view from inside, Lake Union and Queen Anne look beautiful from this vantage point. However, I can't get over the fact that the freeway noise is deafening, the air toxic (don't open those windows), and that completely exposed western-facing windows sound like a recipe for lots of air conditioning.

Next up is the real-life manifestation of the development surrounding Aunt Esther's house from August Wilson's play, Radio Golf. In the play, the house has a history dating back to the arrival of African slaves; in Seattle, the house belonged to one Edith Macefield and is now surrounded by the Ballard Blocks (which, as I understand it, is a parking garage and retail development with no housing...in other words, a strip mall). Per the Clark Design Group's website, the project is/was pursuing LEED CS Silver, which is commendable, though I can't help but wonder how Trader Joe's penchant for excessive packaging should affect this certification. I believe the plan for the pit in the foreground was to construct housing but, as you can see, it is now a sort of detention pond/graffiti studio.

Lastly, we come to the corner of Terry and Howell in the Denny Triangle neighborhood of Seattle. The squat Brutalist building on the right has come to my attention after speaking to a few renegade architects whom I met after starting up my other site. They pointed out that this building was designed by a celebrated NW architecture firm and even won an AIA award in 1964. It is obviously dated, is vacant, and was slated for demolition to construct a condo tower, but I wonder why DOCOMOMO isn't getting involved in preserving it, now that its demise has at least been postponed? We (the architects and I) have been talking about some interventions to perhaps draw attention to this strangely attractive (now that I really look at it) gem and propose some modifications to it. I see a sort of Ken Yeang-ish affair with lots of plants on the newly constructed balconies.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


As you may know, I've been paying quite a bit to parking lots for the last week, or at least one in particular. This newfound interest reminded of a post I've been meaning to write for some time, but first I had to get over to Interbay to take a photo.

Here I share a photo taken from the parking lot of the Interbay Urban Center, in the general direction of the new Whole Foods, toward 15th Ave W, with Queen Anne Hill in the background.

I would like to call attention to the name of the development, specifically the word "urban."

When I first saw this sign, I was immediately reminded of the graphic below, from David Sucher's website City Comforts.

While the Interbay development isn't exactly Suburban, according to this graphic, it certainly has more in common with the ugly suburban retail strips that we are all familiar with (if you're not, take a drive up Aurora Ave and you'll see what I mean), than it does with any true urban development, like Brix on Capitol Hill.

I concede that 15th Ave W and Broadway have nothing in common (namely, Broadway has foot traffic and 15th has auto traffic) and it would be ridiculous to think that sidewalk cafes would go over well on 15th, but I can't help but ask if a run of the mill suburban development (posing as "urban," at least semantically) is the right way to go? I'm really asking because I don't understand how this development does anything to promote the kind of city that I thought we were trying to build.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Times

In the midst of our current financial predicament, folks like myself in the design community are wondering what lies in store for our futures. Others are proceeding with work, even if the schedules have been delayed. Personally, I have been thinking less about what to build (since I'm out of a job) and have been more concerned with the use of the built (or destroyed) environment.

As I prepare to embark on a new academic adventure in the autumn and am already a month into my new role as a father, I am thinking more about what I will be studying while simultaneously wondering what my wife and I will be doing about childcare. In case you didn't know, childcare is very hard to come by in Seattle (and maybe in all cities?). The waiting list at Mother's, on 12th, across from Cafe Presse is more than a year; at Wallingford Child Care it's at least eight months and then they select children whose age corresponds to their openings. At UW, it's up to three years unless one of the parents is a full-time student, living in family housing...and so on. It's all business, I suppose, but it leaves me wondering why there aren't more child care centers in the city.

My first inclination is that people with kids move out to suburbs. Is this right? I'm not sure. I've been reading William Whyte's The Organization Man and recently finished a portion on how suburbs are designed around children, both physically and socially. Another guess is that people who can afford to raise kids in the city either have enough money for the mother to stay home or to hire nannies (bike rides around the north end of Capitol Hill and Queen Anne seem to confirm this assertion).

Returning to the initial reason that I started this blog (forming a group to develop a green, multi-family building, in which we would live after construction), I wonder if a sort of mixed-use building with a day care center at the base would help promote child-rearing in the city? Perhaps we could set ourselves apart from other childcare centers by only hiring people with early childhood education degrees? I know there are some co-operative preschools out there whose model we could follow, and possibly integrate into the building organization itself (though I would not want to create a sort of kids-only building, just kid-friendly).

Of course, hardly anyone is building anything now, and they are certainly not building weird buildings for people like me. But the fact remains that buildings with such amenities (as opposed to the typical nail salon, Subway restaurant, tanning salon, and check-cashing spot) might make a better contribution toward the overall quality of life for the neighborhood. Regarding funding for the construction, I've even wondered if there is a way to create a fund in which neighborhood residents could deposit a small portion of their retirement? This would, in my mind, be a more productive way (though not necessarily a more profitable way?) to use our money than investing in Wal-Mart and the like. I might be wrong but, like Le Corbusier, I have enough time to wonder about these sorts of things lately.

As always, discussion is welcome and encouraged. And I apologize for being somewhat lazy with the posts.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

People's Parking Lot

In the same vein as my previous post, I bring you this video:

Check out my new site here.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Guerilla Space Acquisition

After reading a thread on SLOG, I was thinking some Seattleites should take over that parking lot at Pine and Belmont. We could pay for the parking spaces and set up some chairs, jamboxes, guitars, drums, coolers, bbqs or whatever in lieu of cars and use that space. I'll start an email list here: subscribe in the upper right hand corner and I'll transpose your name to a new list and make sure you don't receive emails from this blog (unless you want them: let me know in the comment section). The weather tomorrow looks good...

(photo borrowed from The Stranger)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Mass Production and Place


In the preface to Genius Loci, Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture, Christian Norberg-Schulz writes that space and character – the two elements that combine to create place – are “directly related to architecture, following the definition of architecture as a ‘concretization of existential space’” (Norberg-Schulz, 5). The author then asserts that concretization should be understood in the same way as gathering, in the Heideggerian sense that things “gather the world.” To illustrate this concept, Norberg-Schulz employs two of Heidegger’s examples of man-made objects gathering the natural world: the first is the bridge from Building Dwelling Thinking, where the philosopher asserts that building a bridge between two general locations “causes [the banks] to lie across from each other; with the banks, the bridge brings to the stream the one and the other expanse of landscape lying beyond them” (Norberg-Schulz, 18). The second example is the jug from Heidegger’s essay The Thing: by bringing water into the home it gathers both the earth and sky – “in the spring the rock dwells, and in the rock dwells the dark slumbers of the earth, which receives the rain and dew of the sky. In the water of the spring dwells the marriage of sky and earth…” (Norberg-Schulz, 168) – and is therefore a thing that connects man to his life-world.

It is this concretization of the natural environment that is a prerequisite for dwelling, which occurs when man can “orientate himself within and identify himself with an environment” (Norberg-Schulz, 5). It follows that when man dwells within a meaningful environment, he is not simply existing in a random location, but actively living and interacting in a unique place.

In a traditional setting, where the buildings and objects (things) of daily use are extensions of the immediate surroundings, a relationship between the individual and place is likely to form. Conversely, in the contemporary world – where architecture does not necessarily reflect the surrounding natural environment, where mass-produced objects are often sold thousands of miles from the sources of material and labor that create the products, and where people move freely between cities and countries – such relationships may be more difficult to develop. Edward S. Casey terms this loss of place displacement – as opposed to implacement, which he considers essential to human well-being and “an ongoing cultural process [that] acculturates whatever ingredients it borrows from the natural world, whether these ingredients are bodies or landscapes or ordinary ‘things’” (Casey, 31) – and regards nostalgia a preeminent symptom of being displaced. Thus, unsurprisingly, Victor Papanek writes of the “simple, modest dwellings of the past [that] exert a strong fascination, and offer a beguiling area for research and study” (Papanek, 113). In light of this “fascination” with traditional, pre-industrial times, the intention of this paper is to explore some of the fundamentals that have historically promoted a strong “sense of place,” and to examine how the modern mode of life, namely the mass production and consumption cycles, has affected the relationship between humankind and place.


J.B. Jackson asserts that the term “sense of place” is “an awkward and ambiguous modern translation of the Latin term genius loci” (Jackson, 24) that actually refers to the guardian divinity of a place, rather than the place itself. On-site rituals and celebrations that paid homage to the divinity thus imbued the place with a special status that, in the modern world, has come to be understood as the atmosphere of a place, or “the quality of its environment” (Jackson, 24). Norberg-Schulz insists that atmosphere, or character, is what distinguishes a place from mere space, and asserts that place is a “qualitative ‘total’ phenomenon,” which cannot be reduced “to any of its properties…without losing its concrete nature” (Norberg-Schulz, 8). Due to the concrete nature of place and its components, Norberg-Schulz turns to the qualitative method of phenomenology – “a return to things, as opposed to abstractions and mental constructions” (Norberg-Schulz, 8) – to analyze place. His analysis leads to a framework for understanding the elements that compose both natural and man-made places.

The first of the two basic components of place that Norberg-Schulz examines is space. Rather than focusing on “space as a three-dimensional geometry [or] space as a perceptual field,” both of which he considers abstractions of everyday lived space, the author calls for a “concrete space,” which is the setting for “concrete human actions [and is] distinguished by qualitative differences” (Norberg-Schulz, 11). Interiority and exteriority are two characteristics implicit in the description of concrete space and, therefore, Norberg-Schulz asserts that extension and enclosure are qualities inherent to any concrete space.
While extension and enclosure can be understood at many scales ranging from the interior of a room to the limits of a city, it is helpful to use Norberg-Schulz’s conception of a landscape (extension) containing settlements (enclosures). Landscapes are also enclosed by topography and/or the horizon, and settlements have their own extensions, but this model is especially relevant as a segue to the concept of environmental scales. As the name suggests, spaces can contain other spaces, as demonstrated by a house within a city, located within an encompassing landscape. It is within this hierarchy that the sense of a place is “gathered” by the buildings and things within it. Thus Heidegger’s aforementioned jug – constructed of clay from the region in which it is used – brings water that is part of an extensive hydrological system to a table in an enclosed room. The jug “‘explains’ the environment and make[s] its character manifest,” (Norberg-Schulz, 16) and thereby becomes meaningful since the place itself meaningful.

Character, the second component of place, is, paradoxically, “a more general and a more concrete concept than space” (Norberg-Schulz, 13), in that it can convey both the general atmosphere of a place as well as distinct properties of the boundaries and elements of a space. Norberg-Schulz asserts that the character of natural and man-made places can be understood by asking “how” is a place; general adjectives such as “safe” or “confusing” can describe atmosphere, while distinct objects, such as boundaries – or facades, in the case of buildings – should be examined with respect to their material and “formal articulation” (Norberg-Schulz, 14). In the case of material, the different visual and tactile qualities of, say, stone and vinyl siding would be considered. The former is imperfectly colored by nature and coarse to the touch; the color of the latter is uniform and it is mechanically planed smooth. Formal articulation can be understood as how something is built – hand-crafted or by machine – and how it visually relates to its surrounding environment.

It is through the combination of space and character that the “spirit of place,” or genius loci, can be understood “as an environment consisting of definite characters” (Norberg-Schulz, 18). In a time of global interconnectivity, vanishing local traditions and accents, and increased urbanization, it is important to keep in mind the existential importance of being from somewhere in particular, and, in the interest of well-being, being able to return home for rest and repose.

Nature, Mass-produced Objects and Place

Following Norberg-Schulz’s assertion that it is through concrete things that we understand place, it will be illuminating to focus on several concrete examples of mass-produced objects and examine if and how they “gather” the surrounding environment. Two “products” of industrialization will be investigated: the railroad system and the modern coffee shop. Each of these is a product that also requires buildings (stations and the coffee shop itself). But before addressing these concrete things, it is worth revisiting the concept of environmental levels and exploring the all-encompassing level of nature, specifically the unspoiled landscape of North America from the colonial years up to the dawn of the industrial revolution.

At two extremes, there is the landscape as the overarching environmental level and the body as the most compact. Casey considers the body “the primary agent in the landscape” (Casey, 26) and considers that which exists between the body and the landscape “place.” He then asserts that place has a “distinctively cultural dimension” (Casey, 29). This cultural bridge between body and nature is clearly represented by the garden, which can be understood as a cultivated middle ground – or boundary (enclosure) – between civilization and nature, and can serve as a dwelling place. This sort of dwelling can be understood informally as wandering throughout a cultivated place, like a park, or more formally as the perambulation rituals – the inspection of the boundaries of a place – that Casey dates back to ancient Rome (Casey, 155). This garden metaphor is especially poignant when considering the industrialization of the bucolic North American continent.

In The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx writes that “the European mind was dazzled by the prospect” of “withdraw[ing] from the great world and begin[ning] a new life in a fresh, green landscape” (Marx, 3). Previously, this opportunity was merely the stuff of dreams, dating back the gentlemanly shepherd of Virgil’s Ecologues. The resulting pastoralism, which Marx describes as having two manifestations – popular and sentimental on one hand, imaginative and complex on the other – was thus embodied in the American culture from the beginning. Moreover, opposing conceptions of the land as cultivated and threatening arose, but both were seen as freedom from the complexities of civil society. Marx cites Shakespeare’s The Tempest – written during the age of exploration – as an imaginative and complex work that explores these disparate points of view, and ultimately “affirms the impulse of civilized man to renew himself by immersion in the simple, spontaneous instinctual life” (Marx, 60) found in nature. Almost two centuries later, Thomas Jefferson was of the same opinion. He was a proponent of rural virtues that saw mechanization as a means to unburden the worker, but despised the factories and cities required to create the machines (he later admitted domestic industrial production was better than falling behind Europe economically). Ralph Waldo Emerson took a similar position: he, somewhat surprisingly, supported the construction of the railroad since it would give urban dwellers access to the cleansing power of nature.


As the railroad network grew – spurred by open land, vast resources, technological ingenuity, and “a democracy which invites every man to enhance his own comfort and status” (Marx, 204) – it “gathered” settlements once separated by great distances and captivated the popular imagination. Like Heidegger’s bridge, it created important places at each terminus. For instance, in the 1860s, before the railroad arrived, Denver was losing residents who were not as successful in mining for gold as they had been previously. But with the arrival of the Denver Pacific Railroad, Denver established itself as the hub in the Rocky Mountain region. Industrial works popped up all over the city and “by 1900, a hundred trains a day snorted in and out of Denver’s Union Station” (Noel, “Mile High City”). In Norberg-Schulz’s terms of extension and enclosure, the railroad extended westward the flexible boundary of the place called the United States: for example, in 1869, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were connected by rail, thus concretizing the concept of Manifest Destiny, and giving future settlers a direct route to the west.

The railroad also expressed the character of the young country, which was embroiled with the idea of “progress,” in both the technological and social spheres of life. “The railroad, animated by its powerful locomotive, appears to be the personification of the American,” wrote Guillaume Poussin in the mid-nineteenth century, after visiting from France (Marx, 208). In his speeches, Daniel Webster, the eminent New England politician, celebrated the national unity and social equality that the new technology would bring. As “a mode of conveyance available to the rich and poor alike” (Marx, 210), Webster’s tenant farmers considered it “their railroad,” upon seeing construction materials along the future alignment. This “visual possession” of the landscape, of which the railroad was becoming a part (Figure 1), evokes what Humphrey Breton considered appropriation of the landscape through the gaze. Commenting on Breton’s idea, Casey writes, “one appropriates one’s own property not just legally but by looking at it from the windows of one’s house” (Casey, 170). Though the tenant farmer does not literally own either the land or the railroad, this concept partially explains how the popular imagination could become enamored with the expanding railroad.

In his speeches, Webster mocked the idea that the railroad disturbed the peace of the countryside and desecrated the landscape, and encouraged its proliferation to aid serious, profit-seeking enterprises. While reluctant supporters like Thomas Jefferson would have likely envisioned the sort of human-scale harmony between industry and nature that Tony Garnier later expressed in Une Cite Industrielle, the result was much different. Rather than the careful integration of industry within the natural landscape, the result was industrial zones that developed around railroad tracks in urban areas; zones that Jane Jacobs considers border vacuums. She asserts that “by oversimplifying the use of the city at one place, on a large scale, [border vacuums] tend to simplify the use which people give to the adjoining territory” (Jacobs, 259). This simplification, which appears visually as a homogenous expanse of indistinct buildings, is anathema to the diversity that she considers a driver of vibrant cross-use and a resulting strong character.

To understand the impacts of such an area on the sense of place, it is helpful to return to Norberg-Schulz. He writes, “when man dwells, he is simultaneously located in space and exposed to a certain environmental character,” and that to “to gain an existential foothold, man must be able to orientate and identify himself with the environment” (Norberg-Schulz, 19). The concept of orientation depends on understanding the spatial structure of the surrounding environment, or, in other words, creating a mental image. In The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch christens the ability of an area to produce mental images imageability and seeks to determine which elements promote it. He identifies five categories – paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks – by which to understand places, and asserts that “they must be patterned together to provide a satisfying form” (Lynch, 83), or, as Norberg-Schulz might say, a qualitative total phenomenon.

An industrial zone, built up around the railroad, can be considered a district since it has some common characteristics and can be entered mentally (Lynch, 66). While an industrial district, such as South Seattle, does have a sort of continuity between the building types – single story metal structures, in the case of Seattle – that is required to define a district, there is no set interrelation between them, and therefore is not particularly memorable. Furthermore, the district is checkered with parking and vacant lots, crisscrossed by homogenous paths (roads), and lacks distinct landmarks or nodes that serve as gathering places. Per Lynch’s criteria, the image of such an area is weak and therefore orienting oneself within it is difficult. Lynch, evoking Norberg-Schulz, writes that “if the environment is visibly organized and sharply identified, then the citizen can inform it with his own meanings and conceptions. Then it will become a true place, remarkable and unmistakable” (Lynch, 92). Furthermore, as a purely utilitarian construct that does not reflect the natural environment, it fails to connect citizens to the higher environmental levels, and thus further neglects the role of an authentic man-made place.

Conversely, a train station – a node and an often a landmark, in Lynch’s terminology – can be an imageable place and contribute to the sense of place of a larger district or city. Lynch writes that such places are important as junctions, where people must make choices and therefore perceive their surroundings with greater clarity, and as thematic concentrations. A classic American example of such a node/landmark is the Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Functionally, it gathers workers from the surrounding bedroom communities; it is a junction where commuters can enter the city and either make their way out on to the surface streets or transfer to the subway in the adjacent station. Thematically, the terminal is important as a transit hub, a retail concentration, a tourist attraction and as an enduring example of Beaux-Arts style architecture.

It is also helpful to analyze Grand Central Terminal with respect to Norberg-Schulz’s five phenomena by which humans understand natural and man-made places: (natural) things, (cosmic) order, character, light and time. The limestone façade reflects the natural world out of which the station was built, while the classical style of the building and its orientation on the gridiron structure of Manhattan’s street system evoke the Roman cardo-decumanus system that pays homage to the four cardinal directions. The building projects a bold character: it appears “serious,” to use Webster’s adjective for such railroad and industrial enterprises, and rests atop the earth, signifying that the rail system has conquered space and time. Light is also an essential feature of the building, whether reflecting off the white exterior or famously entering the lobby through the grand windows (Figure 2). Time, too, is represented explicitly, via the exterior clock and train timetables, and implicitly through the classical architecture and the nod to times past in which the railroad was the dominant form of transportation.

Furthermore, the terminal confirms Norberg-Schulz’s position that “places conserve their identity during a certain stretch of time” and “should have the ‘capacity’ of receiving different ‘contents’” (Norberg-Schulz, 18), as is demonstrated by its current incarnation as a functional node for travel, as a tourist destination – the terminal “gathers” tourists – and even as a stage for public performance art.

From the brief examination above, it should be evident that the railroad – America’s first foray into industrialization and mass production – has had a remarkable influence on the sense of place of the nation and its cities. Many options for further study of sense of place with relation to the railroad could be pursued: one could be an examination of the small communities that grew up around the railroad and how they have responded to urban growth at the termini that have, in many cases, “gathered” the later generations of small-town citizens; another possible thread to explore could be the sense of place that Beat Generation wanderers felt for the railroad itself, rather than for – or in addition to – the cities that the railroad connected.


That ubiquitous white paper cup with the green circle around the crowned siren can be interpreted as a contemporary version of Heidegger’s jug. Rather than gathering the world through the water from a nearby spring, the (disposable) Starbucks cup gathers water from the municipal system, coffee beans from afar and, depending on the customer’s order, a wide variety of dairy and artificial flavorings from diverse natural and artificial origins (and that is not even counting the labor and resources consumed to create and ship the ingredients, build the store or bring the customers to the cash register). The extent to which that paper cup gathers – whether one is enjoying a beverage in Seattle, Paris or Beijing – is not just the local slices of earth underfoot and sky overhead, but a synthesis of places that would be best measured by latitude and longitude.

The question of whether this complex mode of gathering helps concretize the surrounding world, of whether it promotes understanding of the enclosing natural environment and therefore promotes dwelling, remains. Norberg-Schulz writes that “if a thing does not [concretize or reveal life it its various aspects], it is not a thing but a mere commodity” (Norberg-Schulz, 169). To answer this question, the cup of coffee must be further scrutinized.

Ignoring for a moment that this particular cup is disposable and emblazoned with a logo, it can be considered what Le Corbusier terms a type-object. According to his definition, such an object supplements our natural capabilities by serving typical human needs, or type-needs; it is “a docile servant [that is] discreet and self-effacing” (Le Corbusier, 79). A Corbusian cup would likely fall somewhere between Heidegger’s jug (as the work of a craftsman) and the disposable Starbucks cup. It would differ from the former in material (likely metal in lieu of clay) and production (mass-produced rather than hand-crafted); it would differ from the latter in material (metal rather than paper), be free of logos and intended for reuse. And while Le Corbusier would likely consider his mass-produced type-object an improvement over the vernacular jug, he would almost certainly consider the Starbucks cup a piece of disposable junk to be hidden beneath decoration (as his Industrialist suggests in “A Hurricane,” the chapter on the Industrial Revolution in The Decorative Art of Today), in the same manner that a coffee connoisseur would accuse the chain of “burying bad [coffee] flavor under [flavored] syrups” (Clark, 213). Therefore neither the beverages nor the container clearly concretize the immediate natural environment.

However, Starbucks coffee shops are undoubtedly successful at gathering people, both as a daily ritual and, in the case of the original store in Pike Place Market, a tourist destination. Promoting their shops as a third place, Starbucks strives to “capture a unique warmth that sets it apart from the first two places in most people’s lives: work and home” (Michelli, 11). And while Starbucks has been successful at establishing itself as such, the effects of their distribution (layout within concrete space) and design (character) on the sense of place – in the urban fabric and within the store itself, respectively – should be examined.

Above all else, Starbucks prides itself on being convenient. For instance, when driving toward an urban center, the majority of the Starbucks outlets will be on the right-hand side of the road, making them easily accessible to commuters (Clark, 117). This convenience also extends to the function of the store: if the lines are becoming too long in any one location, the company will often open another nearby. Such development patterns parallel suburbanization in their ostensible devotion to immediate satisfaction, and consequently mesh well with the decentralized layout of such areas. However, with regard to developing a strong sense of place, coffee shops distributed in such a manner – namely those with drive-thru windows – do not promote dwelling. The drive-thru window is much like the hotel room that Casey describes as “the very essence of transiency, of not dwelling somewhere, of merely passing through on one’s way to somewhere else” (Casey, 114). Moreover, he continues to explore the etymology of the verb “to dwell,” and notes that the Old Norse dvelja means “to linger,” a concept that is antithetical to the drive-thru window. By integrating such a feature into its outlets, Starbucks reduces its chances of creating a true place. Furthermore, by virtue of their omnipresence – which some critics say homogenizes neighborhoods; in some cases two shops have been opened across the street from one another (Figure 3) – the shops also contribute heavily to the character of the areas in which they are located. Namely, the joy of discovering something new from among many choices is supplanted by the expectation of the old standby.

Of course, the “unique warmth” that Starbucks strives to project is typically inside the shop rather than on the outside, much like a typical suburban home, and does invite the customer to linger. The interior is a concrete space, enclosed by glass, and is designed by staff architects to create the desired atmosphere. In a maneuver very similar to that of AEG under Peter Behrens, Starbucks carefully designs everything from the interior finish color palette and lighting down to the napkins and music. The color palette endeavors to reconnect the store interior, the product and natural environment by using green, red, blue and yellow, which correspond to ancient four elements of the earth: earth (growing beans), fire (roasting beans), water (brewing coffee) and wind (aroma of coffee) (Clark, 104). Starbucks’ standard layout also evokes Behrens’ design philosophy that expresses function as part of the aesthetic by placing the espresso machine front and center (Clark, 102).

Though many of the design features are present in all the stores, “leadership chose to consciously meld [the] consistent environmental features in its store designs with community-based nuances” (Michelli, 57), in a sort of customization that evokes Kieran and Timberlake’s ideas for an evolution in mass-produced housing, and also reflects the popular beverage customization – “two-pump vanilla, half-caf, soy latte” – that supposedly personalizes a drink that comes off a miniaturized production line. On the surface, this idea seems to jibe with Norberg-Schulz’s call for “modern architecture [to] give buildings and places individuality, with regard to space and character” by “tak[ing] the circumstantial conditions of locality and building task into consideration” (Norberg-Schulz, 195). However, his examples of successful local adaptations are reserved to landmark projects by the likes of Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, which are all distinctly different types of projects than a typical strip mall Starbucks outlet. Nevertheless, Starbucks has, according to Lawrence Cheek, the architecture critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, adapted some its stores to their surroundings. Specifically he discusses a store on Mercer Island that is “a dramatic Northwest contemporary shed with a high-rise roofline, an inviting lattice-sheltered drive-thru queue, and structural biceps strutting nakedly and exuberantly on the outside” (Cheek, “On Architecture.”). Though this case is encouraging, the fact remains that most outlets are more similar than not, and questions about the resulting “place-ness” remain unanswered.

Jean Baudrillard shines some light on the concept of reproductions in his essays on simulacra and simulation. In discussing an exact replica of the Lascaux caves, which was constructed to save the original from tourist traffic, he writes that “from now on there is no longer any difference: the duplication suffices to render both artificial” (Baudrillard, 9). With the “disappearance” of the original, it is impossible to determine which came first and what now remains is two “copies” – the very definition of a simulacrum: “a real without origin or reality” (Baudrillard, 1). While Starbucks outlets are certainly not “exact replicas,” this situation seems applicable since they are often indistinguishable. Baudrillard continues to describe the homogenizing affect of such places on visitors as “controlled socialization: retotalization in a homogenous space-time of all dispersed functions of the body and of social life (media, leisure, media culture)” (Baudrillard, 67). Though this statement is undoubtedly hyperbolic, when one considers that Starbucks are typically opened in areas with similar demographics – levels of high income, population and education (Clark, 119) – and that the employees are encouraged to interact with customers in a similar manner, the homogenizing force is evident. Or consider the books and music that many outlets are now selling: each selection could be described as innocuous or wholesome – “feel-good” Mitch Albom books rather than fatwah-inducing, thought-provoking works like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses; universally-accessible jazz by Norah Jones instead of, say, the politically-charged stylings of Rage Against the Machine – and is directed at customers that might rightly be described as “the Starbucks type.” Such a place may in fact exude a strong sense of place and concretize an existential space, but one is left wondering if that is necessarily a good thing.

Casey also offers an interpretation of replicated places; returning his discussion on cultivating gardens, he writes that “cultivation as caring-for extends to the architectural realm as well” (Casey, 173). He insists that to become dwelling-places, buildings must be cultivated – personalized, cared-for and settled-into by the users – and that this process begins when the place is constructed. The care required to undertake such a construction process evokes the vernacular craftsmanship that Modernists seek to replace by mass-production: according to Casey, the builder must consider the materials, the immediate surrounding of the future building, the entire landscape and even the desires of the future end-users (Casey, 174).
While this degree of care is rarely taken in contemporary construction, on a spectrum of the resulting “place-ness” of a building, it could be considered the ideal. The opposite end of the spectrum would be Kieran and Timberlake’s mass-produced/mass-customized building: “places destined for dwelling are neither merely presented to us as already made…nor can they be built instantly or ex nihilo [italics added]” (Casey, 174). A typical Starbucks outlet, with its mass-produced, standardized design features, would probably fall closer to the Kieran and Timberlake model than to the Casey model, thus making it less of a distinct place than upper management would like to believe.

In conclusion, the widely reproduced Starbucks experience – though it can take place in an environment that is distinct when compared with other places, excluding other Starbucks outlets – seems to be without significant qualitative differences and a standardized product of mass production, meant for mass consumption, which is essentially the definition of a commodity. And while that paper cup does, in a way, concretize the complex, globalized modern world, its nature as a piece of such an entangled web prohibits it from concretizing the nature of a unique place.


As can be seen by the extent of this discussion, the effect of mass production on the concept of “sense of place” is both complex and far-reaching. It is, nevertheless, a relationship that has implications on the well-being of humanity, the aesthetic quality of the built environment and, though it was not explicitly examined in this study, the ecological health of the planet. And while the chosen examples of railroads and Starbucks coffee shops could be investigated further, as could many other staples, past and present, of American culture, an interesting direction to extend this study would be into the realm of high-technology. An especially interesting angle to take would be a study of the worldwide “gathering” capability of portable communication devices, and the resulting effect on place, considering that users can be both in a concrete, physical place and an abstract, virtual place.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation
Casey, Edward S. Getting Back Into Place
Cheek, Lawrence. “On Architecture: Starbucks puts a double shot of hometown flavor into every store”
Clark, Taylor. Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture
Jackson, J.B. A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Kieran, Stephen, and Timberlake, James. Refabricating Architecture
Le Corbusier. The Decorative Art of Today. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987
Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City
Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden
Michelli, Joseph. The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary
Noel, Thomas J. “Mile High City”
Norberg-Schulz, Christian. Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture
Papanek, Victor. The Green Imperative

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thank You, Escala

Therefore a good many city streets (not all) need visual interruptions, cutting off the indefinite distant view and at the same time visually heightening and celebrating intense street use by giving it a hint of enclosure and entity.

-- Jane Jacobs, in the chapter "Visual order: its limitations and possibilities," from The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Of course, there are many complaints to be waged against Escala -- namely that it is essentially a gated suburb in the middle of the city, complete with a private social club, that will further isolate the building occupants from the homeless kids two blocks away in the Westlake Park -- but that's not the point of the post. The "visual interruption" that the building provides is welcome from this vantage point, in the "Financial District," or whatever they are calling this block (note that Escala is in "Midtown," according to its website). For that, and only that, I thank Escala.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Understanding Las Vegas

Works referenced:
Learning From Las Vegas, Robert Venturi et al
Neon Metropolis, Hal Rothman

Understanding Las Vegas

While Venturi et al’s “study of method, not content” (6) is an incredibly valuable investigation of a tangible, concretely expressed Las Vegas, it falls short of laying a groundwork for the new intellectual organization that Rothman insists is necessary to understand Las Vegas. Rather, their study could perhaps be better understood as a catalogue of specific visual symptoms endemic to a society mired in the unreality of the postmodern world. This situation is nothing new: In his essay, From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of the Consumer Culture, 1880-1930, T.J. Jackson Lears asserts “the first and simplest source of a sense of unreality was the urban-industrial transformation” (6) that drew workers from the traditional social moorings of agrarian communities to nineteenth century industrial centers. Rothman’s characterization of Las Vegas as a site for the consumption of experience is a contemporary incarnation of the “commodified titillation [of] cabarets and amusement parks” that modern-era workers sought as therapy for their feelings of alienation. It follows that in addition to exploring visual signs, as do Venturi et al, another element of a fruitful strategy for understanding Las Vegas would focus on the causes of feelings of displacement, both in Las Vegas itself and in other locales that are points of departure for the desert oasis.

One starting point would be addressing the rapid development of Las Vegas itself, as Rothman does, and examining how it relates to the implacement – to borrow a concept from Edward S. Casey – of the individual. As the photos that accompany Venturi et al’s study demonstrate, one hundred years ago the city was hardly more than a railroad depot and a few haphazardly constructed houses and buildings around what is now downtown Fremont Street. Rothman notes that the history of (the citizens of) Las Vegas is elsewhere, in the coastal cities that became too expensive, or the Rust Belt cities that ceded their industrial activity to developing nations. He continues to illustrate the suburbanization of the area and the ensuing atomization of society that is manifested in gated communities, status-seeking through material acquisition, and notably, in the “space for crowds of anonymous individuals without explicit connection with each other” (50) that Venturi et al describe. In such an environment, a human connection with the “place” would be very difficult to foster and therefore feelings of alienation would likely abound. Of course, most cities have not and never will expand at the same rate as Las Vegas, but with similar development patterns being the norm, it is helpful to consider Las Vegas as model of what could potentially happen if unchecked suburbanization is permitted.

Lears remarks that in the late nineteenth century, the burgeoning urban leisure industry served “the anxious businessman as well as the bored shop girl.” Similarly, the Las Vegas of today, as a hermetic place in the desert, designed around rapid movement via automobile and itinerant visitors arriving and departing by plane, that presents itself as an alternate reality – “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” according to a recent advertising campaign – is a favorite destination for professional conventions and personal vacations. These forms of tourism are the backbone of Las Vegas’s economy and are increasingly important ingredient of local economies around the country. One needs to look no further than the recent and planned expansions of the Washington State Trade and Convention Center, the “starchitect”-designed Seattle Public Library and Experience Music Project, or the perpetuation of luxury hotels (The W Seattle, Four Seasons) and fine arts venues (Seattle Art Museum expansion, Olympic Sculpture Park, Benaroya Hall) to see how important impressing well-heeled and classy visitors to Seattle has become. Moreover, faced with a rapidly declining population and increase in crime, Detroit recently chose to emulate Las Vegas’s success by legalizing gambling and encouraging resort construction to attract the convention crowds. As these cities become tourist destinations and development that caters to outside money trumps the needs and desires of residents, it is likely that feelings of displacement will increase, thus exacerbating the need for new forms of leisure and escape.

A third lesson to learn from Las Vegas could revolve around uniqueness. While Madison Avenue advertisers encourage each and every one of us to express our individuality – a concept that, as Rothman explains, many visitors to and residents of Las Vegas have taken to heart – the fact remains that Las Vegas actually is a unique city, like Seattle, New York or Chicago. The real danger facing Las Vegas and other cities – both developing and established – seems to be the importing and exporting of successful forms and economic models, rather than expressing local nature and culture (the indoor ski slope in Dubai comes to mind). Though some may not approve of its identity as an ever-changing place where hedonism is encouraged, that is what Las Vegas is, and it should express – not necessarily export – this and any other unique characteristics. For example, it could be said that the temporary nature of a visit to an impermanent, always-changing place like Las Vegas reflects the ephemeral nature of life itself. This very aspect of its identity stands in stark contrast to the more established cities of Europe and the East Coast, and should be celebrated.

It is in regard to the concept of uniqueness that Venturi et al’s work shines. Where some would argue for more trees and grass in the medians along a major thoroughfare, the authors conclude that making these changes would be detrimental to the city. They consider the signs one of the best (read: most unique) parts of the city and do not want to block them with foliage; they note that grass in the medians would be difficult to maintain and suggest that they be paved in gold, in homage to the identity of the place. Combining such an examination of the visual aspects of Las Vegas with other social, economic and political studies reinforces the need for interdisciplinary education and could lead to an intellectual organization robust enough to understand Las Vegas and other developing cities.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Here is a nice little park near the UW campus. In the background you can see the Henry Art Gallery and Suzzallo Library; Gould Hall, home to the newly renamed College of Built Environments is a block away to the right.

Problem is, the park is in a median, with two lanes of traffic on each side running the length of the park, two on the near end, and four on the far end. Note the meandering path down the center of the median that is ostensibly a place for contemplation.

I've heard the park referred to as "a waste" and "hated." At the time, I thought these words rather harsh, but I've grown to feel the same. It goes without saying that a place for contemplation and respite looks much more like this (Kyoto, Japan):

In the same vein, and near Seattle Pacific University, one can find this charming stretch of retail, restaurant and office real estate, adjacent to Nickerson Street. Again, good intentions fall victim to the surrounding street alignment. I, for one, don't care to walk to and from any retail, restaurant or office location that is five feet away from four lanes of barreling traffic, and I doubt many other people do.

I recently asked, as many do, for whom or what are we building our city. Both of these examples point to vehicular traffic as the primary recipient of all that hard work, while a little bit of humanity is wrangled into the leftover space. Not a new observation, I know, but a powerful one nonetheless.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Indigenous Modernities

In a chapter entitled “Concerning Violence,” Frantz Fanon characterizes the successful decolonization process as changing the “whole social structure…from the bottom up” (The Wretched of the Earth, 35). While the only mention of violence in the Metcalf and Hosagrahar readings is the bomb tossed at Lord Hardinge by an Indian nationalist, as the Englishman entered the new capital, Hosagrahar’s concept of “indigenous modernities” could perhaps be seen as a peaceful – yet still rebellious – analogue of transforming the social structure. By undertaking their own program of modernization, which was more appropriate to their daily living situation and cultural values than the British version of “an idealized and universal modernity” (Hosagrahar, 221), the residents of Delhi adapted to the changing social situation while peacefully asserting their independence via the built environment.

The Delhi Improvement Trust (DIT) was formed in 1936 with the objective of “reforming and modernizing the city” by “relieving congestion, improving living conditions, and developing new areas as planned extensions to the city” (225). In short, the DIT had free reign to westernize the areas that the government considered slums, many of which had blossomed as “modern” industry grew and attracted more workers. Since these “slums” were without adequate water and sanitary sewer infrastructure, and had a population density that was 30 times greater than that of New Delhi, the colonial administration could attempt to “improve” them under the auspices of public health. However, as Hosagrahar asserts, the proposed layout of the DIT projects provided a much more open layout that would be easier to police for “deviant behavior and insurgency” (239). Similarly, by disrupting the existing communities and thinning out the crowds, it would likely be possible to prevent social organization that could lead to an upheaval of colonial rule.

Hosagrahar introduces the physical manifestations that represent the social divide between the government and the property owners by describing the savvy manner by which the latter set about building what would later be considered slums. Spurred by the modern economic policies that made land a commodity, property owners found ways around strict building regulations. They built irregular additions to their buildings and then used the court system and regulatory structures to make the illegal structures legal. For example, they continuously renewed permit applications, appealed to higher courts for decisions in their favor and banded together and asserted that controversial structures had always been there (224). Attempts to demolish existing structures were thwarted by inhabitants that obtained restraining orders and appeared in court (223). Moreover, many of the lower level inspectors were residents, extended family members or fellow churchgoers and therefore had loyalties to the neighborhoods as well as the government, and thus fueled the haphazard construction (224). In true modern fashion, monetary and political incentives from the new entrepreneurs convinced many inspectors and building officials to look the other way or approve construction plans (225). By utilizing such modern means and driven by modern capitalist intentions, the property owners and inhabitants of Delhi essentially defined Hosagrahar’s concept of “indigenous modernity” by propagating a style of housing that reflects the everyday situation of the citizens.

Increasing the divide between the government and the citizenry was the DIT’s effort to “unslum” the center of walled Delhi with a scientific approach of reducing complex “tight-knit families and cultural communities” (232) to population statistics that needed to be spread out. Though the residents frowned upon these development schemes, they were aware of the monetary returns that could be reaped by selling their property. Dissatisfied with offers for their land, they often banded together and made legal appeals, sometimes resulting in the property remaining theirs and unchanged. Hosagrahar asserts that the intention of the property owners was to maximize their personal gains but realized that selling their land for the offered price would destroy their community (235).

Of course, some DIT projects, which completely ignored traditional Indian living arrangements, such as the interior courtyard that provided an escape from the heat or layouts conducive to housing extended family members, were completed. But rather than decongesting the slum areas as planned, new immigrants from elsewhere moved in and often “indigenized” the buildings, which resulted in a reflection of the area’s cultural context rather than the intended European ideal of modernity. As a result, the high density and strong social ties within the communities remained in spite of the new construction.

Furthermore, the same capitalistic spirit that created much of the overcrowding remained and was likely exacerbated by the DIT’s development program. Property owners continued to expand their buildings into the public streets, thus resulting in the increasingly narrow avenues and hodgepodge architecture that defines Delhi. In doing so they preserved their cultural values privately but, as in most entrepreneurial endeavors, “sometimes sacrificed public good” (238). Hosagrahar notes that these “petty entrepreneurs” both followed and manipulated the law by “appropriating space by stealth, negotiating compensations, pressurizing (sic) inspectors, screaming injustice and seeking the protection of law” (239) and even though the outcomes were not what the citizens wanted, the new buildings grew to resemble the existing cityscape.

In the end, the complex diversity of the Indian culture and the willingness to adapt to the new economic and political environment proved too resilient for rational European modernism to overcome. The original landscape created in response to the industrialization of Delhi seems to remain largely intact while the completed DIT projects have taken on a form similar to that of the consciously hybridized buildings of New Delhi: they are essentially a western architecture that has elements of Indian culture added to better fit within the surrounding context. However, the buildings that rose out of the walled central city represent an entirely different degree of social participation and should therefore be considered the true expression of the adaptable culture of Delhi.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Streets For People

Coming up next Thursday at the Armory at South Lake Union Park is the Streets for People Kickoff Forum. Hope to see you there.

2009 vs. 1942

For whom/what do we build our cities?

At my other site, I've been taking and posting a daily photo. I thought this one was applicable for this site as well, so I've posted it for your viewing pleasure.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Abstract Lego City

Click Here

Mass-produced Housing

Below is another reading response for my class. There are three class readings cited:
Fuller ("Designing a New Industry")
Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities)
Duany et al (Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream) -- we only read about twenty pages but this seems to be a great book, in the same vein as Jacobs.

In writing this I realized, perhaps for the first time, that mass-produced housing does not explicitly lead to insular suburbs. I think it is the way mass-produced housing is used that produces the suburbs we tend to scorn. For example, if someone were to streamline the construction of high-quality, green and affordable multifamily buildings that could be adapted to fit neighborhood context, I think they would be reaching the goal that I had in starting this blog.

Mass-produced Housing

Though Buckminster Fuller’s idea of retooling airplane-building operations to mass produce light, metal-framed houses never came to be, he correctly identified a nascent peace-time economy that would grow out of the war machine. The postwar housing boom – fueled by increased consumer spending and New Deal legislation designed to promote home ownership – provided many Americans with the suburban accommodations that Ebenezer Howard considered an escape from the terribly unnatural city. However, the effects of suburban lifestyles on both the environment and social relations are largely detrimental. And though the environmental assaults are myriad – highways clogged with commuter traffic, clear-cut swaths through forests for future construction, erosion along streams from increased impermeable paving – they at least tend to be visible, while declining social relations remain somewhat more veiled.

In asserting that “Americans may have the finest private realm in the developed world, but our public realm is brutal,” Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck (41) address a physical representation of the social relations that are either created or reflected by mass-produced suburban housing. For example, upon leaving the house, the suburban dweller is typically relegated to travel by automobile – which is, in itself, isolating – and must jockey for position with other drivers for a simple trip to the supermarket. Compared to Jane Jacobs’ description of Boston’s North End, where “working places and commerce [mingle] in the greatest complexity with its residences,” (8) the suburban layout offers far fewer chances for regular interaction with neighbors running errands or going to work. The importance of diverse of land use is a continuous theme of her book and doubles as a call for diverse built environments that promote cross-use and human interaction.

Duany et al continue to describe suburban developments in which housing clusters are built according to selling price. This, the authors stress, is a contemporary example of segregation that follows in the vein of racism, classism and scorn for immigrants – “[The North End is] still getting immigrants!” says a Boston banker to Jacobs (11), citing this as reason to consider the area a slum – and has plagued American cities over time. The authors also assert that clusters are a way to sell “the concept of exclusivity,” since many mass-produced homes are indistinguishable by any other metric. The apotheosis of this segregation is the gated community, where a physical boundary is constructed to separate the wealthy from the not-so-wealthy.

Segregation is becoming increasingly widespread as former suburban residents are relocating to urban cores, where luxury high-rise condominium developments – the urbanized gated community or “islands within the city,” as Jacobs calls them – are sprouting. With block-long podiums housing private amenities and garages in which residents park their cars, these new urban denizens need not interact with other city-dwellers much more than when they were suburbanites. In their article Soft Urbanism: Safeguarding the Private City, Füller and Marquardt posit that private security forces, such as the Metropolitan Improvement District (MID) in Seattle, are necessary because “the production of safe and clean, exciting and lively, convenient and healthy spaces for the former suburbanites does not always get along easily with the so called ‘edgy urban experience’” (7). These modifications to the city are examples of social values from the arena of mass-produced houses colonizing the place where the informal “ballet of the good city sidewalk” (Jacobs, 50) reflects healthy social interaction.

As Duany et al profess, “the segregationist pattern is self-perpetuating” (45). They note that those raised in homogenous enclaves are less likely to be empathetic to people of differing socio-economic status. Rather than having daily interaction with diverse society, these children are socialized “through the sensationalizing eye” (46) of the media. In such an arrangement, the cohesiveness of a diverse society of the future is threatened, even as this has been a goal for which many generations of minorities and activists have striven. Moreover, the authors suggest that segregation is also inconvenient: In a diverse neighborhood, teachers, shopkeepers, businesspeople, and doctors can interact daily, thus helping to establish the elusive “community” that fosters social interaction.

Offering diverse housing options also increases the resilience of a community since “people buy the community first and the house second” (Duany et al, 48). In suburban developments, if one wants to upgrade or downsize, depending on their station in life, it is likely that the only option will be to relocate to another neighborhood. Conversely, in a neighborhood like Georgetown, where housing options range from apartments to townhouses to mansions, it is possible for an individual or family to change homes while remaining in the same community. Similarly, Jane Jacobs considers having “many individuals who stay put” (139) to be an attribute of stable neighborhoods; this assertion is reinforced by her example of Joe Cornacchia, the owner of a neighborhood deli with whom many residents leave their keys when expecting visitors at odd times. Joe gets this role in part because he has established himself in the neighborhood as a trusted individual.

The very possibility of this sort of interaction between neighborhood residents and local businesses can only exist in places where mixed-use development is legal. Duany et al note that the classic arrangements of apartments above retail, which provide customers and “eyes on the street,” and the store-below-the-house are largely illegal in suburban areas, due to “the lingering memory of industrial pollution blighting residential areas” (50). This arrangement stands in direct opposition to Jacobs’ call for the need of primary mixed uses that share the same streets and promote cross-use throughout the day.

While it is evident that many of the tears in the social fabric can be attributed to the rise of homogenous, mass-produced housing, it is important to remember that the mass production process cannot be explicitly blamed for the outcome. On the contrary, it seems as if the social situation that promoted insular suburban housing has been exacerbated by its perpetuation. Rather than merely critiquing the process of mass production, it may be more fruitful to address suburbanization from a sociological perspective, as Jacobs does.