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 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.