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, F├╝ller 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.