Sunday, December 20, 2009

Big Nasty- Bjarke Ingels stops by the Architecture League

Well, it's the Christmas season in New York City, and we know what that means- it's time for visits from energetic rosy-cheeked cherubs from the north. This past Tuesday Bjarke Ingels stopped by to give a talk and present his recent work at the Architecture League. In addition, he was being introduced by Amale Andraos of Work AC whose work I've admired since their PS 1 installation way back in 2008.

After work I hurried down to the lecture hall and excitedly took my seat behind one of the giant columns in the Great Hall at Cooper Union. For those of you who haven't experienced a lecture there let me try to describe it: you get your ticket and descend what appears to be a maintenance stair to a side entrance into a long hallway that ends in a wall. To your left are entry doors to the auditorium in the basement of the building. The space is cavernous, befitting a major lecture hall in New York City, but being as it is also the basement there are huge columns on a 30 foot grid. These do a fantastic job of obstructing the view from all sorts of different angles and so Cooper Union has been forced to put up additional screens so that the people who were not there in time to sit in the center can lean awkwardly in their seats to catch glimpses of any one of three projector screens. I was one of those people.

The lecture was scheduled to start at 7; I knew that the hour was nigh when I saw Bjarke put on the black hoodie. He was introduced by Amale at 7:09. Now, normally when designers are asked to speak at the Architecture League they cling to the lectern and lecture loquaciously with a surly sneer. Granted, even for well-spoken professionals it would be difficult to face an entire auditorium, none of whom you can see because all of the halogen lamps in the place are trained directly on your forehead. By 7:12, Bjarke had already left the lectern, mounted the stage, and was pacing excitingly across the stage explaining his projects.

For a good idea of what the talk was like (right down to the projects presented and the jokes told) one should just refer to the TED talks video and the commentary provided by the good folks at mammoth a few months ago. Suffice it to say that he was as exuberant and self-effacing as ever, with his charmingly goofy accent and propensity to stutter almost even disarming the icy New York crowd.

One thing struck me: Bjarke is completely unapologetic. Sure he wears a hoodie to give his presentation; why not? Sure, he leapt up on to the stage and is now gesticulating wildly. Sure his firm's defining publication is a comic book; why not? Well, of course there are very good reasons why you wouldn't do these things. Most of these have to do with decorum and respectability, which he seems to care nothing about. He's a confounding, captivating blend of punk rock and shameless opportunist. And he is up front about this- Yes Is More.

This attitude is wonderfully, ominously reminiscent of the life affirming world view of some ancient cultures discussed by Joseph Campbell in his comparative mythology ramblings. To quote Campbell, "The only way to affirm life is to affirm it to the root, to the rotten, horrendous base... Through the bitterness and pain, the primary experience at the core of life is a sweet wonderful thing. This affirmative view comes pouring in on one through these terrific rites and myths." And BIG affirms everything, be it traceurs using his exterior spaces for a little fun or literally building cheesy mountain-buildings in Asia. He does it in a visionary and sophisticated way, but it is also crass and flippant and it tends to offend architects' delicate sensibilities. I would liken him to Del tha Funky Homosapien more than any contemporary architect.

After his lecture he calmed down and came down from the stage, sweating and still a bit excited. And Amale was waiting for him with pursed lips. Now these were both coworkers at OMA just a few short years ago and are now heading up excellent studios. As is customary at these things they sat together for a little Q and A for the benefit of the plebeians sitting out amongst the basement columns. Amale immediately launched into a five minute diatribe disguised as question that essentially said- "you take whatever work comes your way. Why don't you ever set the agenda?" His answer, which could be seen as humble or a cop out- architects are just part of a larger system, we don't set the agenda and we have to go where the work is, that we are no different from the plumber or the banker or the pediatrician.  It was utterly Koolhaasian). It was also an honest appraisal and while I think BIG has been very opportunistic early on, focusing on high-profile glamorous competitions and commissions, there is no reason this anti-ethos couldn't be applied to other types of projects that were smaller in scale or for more ambiguous in origin. Though they would probably draw less ire from the pious powers if they jumped on the public urban farm wagon.

While that is debatable, one of the most compelling anti-Bjarke (or anti-OMA) arguments I've heard is that we don't need more 200 million dollar luxury development projects and decadent new public entertainment parks when schools and scientific research are grossly underfunded, and infrastructure is failing and that by going after those commissions an architect is validating the perverse vision of the capitalist mastermind. But I reckon we don't want to hear that; we need the scraps from the table to publish in the awards issues each year.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Die mythisch verloren stadt!

There's been a bit of a dust up in the past decade concerning one of the most American of themes- the mythical city of riches! The Ancient City of Z has been profiled again in recent years as new archeological efforts and methods, including aerial photography and satellite imagery, have revealed the existence of sophisticated urban cultures existing in the Amazon river basin for hundreds of years prior to European arrival.

These revelations have brought about the vindication of one Sir Percy Harrison Fawcett, a debonair adventurer extraordinaire from Victorian England. He spent his formative years at the turn of the 20th century studying the historical accounts of the Spanish Conquistadors and their search for the City of El Dorado. He pursued a popular idea of the time that claimed a mythical city of fabulous riches existed deep in the heart of the Amazon. In the prime of his life he took off into the jungle Aguirre-like with his son and some hired help and was never heard from again (apart from a few letters sent by dispatch). The jungle ate him and over time he was both lionized as a courageous hero and a crazy man who died running a fool's errand. As time went by and biological theories evolved the idea of an inhospitable Amazon fit nicely into theories of both biological and environmental determinism. The City of Z was rarely considered. Until it was found!

In the last 6 years or so, a number of discoveries prove that the Amazon did indeed support large populations of people living sedentary lives based on sophisticated methods of agriculture and aquaculture and the accompanying cultural and religious accoutrements (ritual, astronomy, engineering, virgin sacrifice- err, maybe not that one. whatever). Anthropologist Michael Heckenberger and others are now working feverishly to publish their work concerning the massive earthworks, mystical astronomical sites, and large scale farming which provide compelling evidence of pre-Colombian urbanism in the Americas. The raw material of a winning entry in the next sexy infrastructure competition can surely be found by googling "ancient. Amazon. civilization".

At any rate, I'm not particularly concerned with the City of Z, the Stonehenge of the Amazon, or the sophisticated farming techniques of the pre-Colombian Americans. I am intrigued by the larger pattern of mythical American cities- El Dorado, Tenochtitlan, City of Z, Denver, San Francisco, and New York. Interestingly, the most prominent writing on the work being done in the Amazon has not been by any anthropologists or geographers but rather by two writers, Charles Mann and David Grann. Both have even penned entire books on the subject before the scientists have cleared peer review. It is indicative of the power of myth in our collective conscious; the myths are more fundamental than the facts.

Mythical cities across the world hold an allure, be it Jerusalem or Paris or Mandalay. But in the Americas they are of a different nature. In the Americas they are not defined by religion and history, and iconic cultural figures as they tend to be elsewhere. This may be because the Americas are dominated immigrants; few indigenous people have a stake, and most of the current inhabitants are the not-too-distant descendants of an ambitious, hard-scrabble folk and their slaves. Regardless, mythical American cities tend to be defined by three things: bigness, riches, and autonomy. They are the manifestations of desperate dreams and prodigious successes built on the broken backs of the masses. But the masses had their chance too, at least in the mythology.

The late historian Gunther Barth has a whole chapter in Instant Cities titled "Reluctant Citizens".  His point was that the creation of city in the case of San Francisco and Denver was initially a side effect, that the city building was a process of amalgamation, a bunch of people in close proximity doing what they came to do. City-as-side effect is not an anomaly in of itself, (see Barth's chapter "Variations of a City Type" for his explanation on the city-as-emporium typology), but as a residue of the pursuit of riches, bigness, and autonomy it is an American phenomenon. In the post-Colombian history of the Americas the mythical American City- the place of riches, bigness, and autonomy- has been reborn in various locations.  First it was the golden cities of the sixteenth century, New York in the 1700's, San Francisco and the West in the 1800's, Los Angeles in the 20th century (it will likely be a Brazilian city soon).  It is this myth and its myriad variations and iterations that sucked conquistadors into the jungle, drew Europeans to New York, pushed Americans out west, drove Mexicans to the North (explored in the most troubling and twisted of ways by Bill Vollmann in his recent book).

The myths of a city serve a particular purpose, be it economic, political, social, or otherwise.  The can be affected from without or propagated from within. But these myths attract people, money, and power and the contribute to the settlement patterns and shaping of the environment.  The American City myth is a good one- it may never die.

I'm not sure of the influence of a city's mythology on the design of its public spaces.  The germane nature of mythology in the making of some cities suggests a close yet indeterminate relationship.  The most interesting waterfront park to open in New York in the recent boon is the above East River State Park.  Like most other waterfront parks in the city it is a former industrial site that was cleaned up a bit and surrounded with the ubiquitous New York City park fence.  Some of the industrial relics were preserved, in this case a concrete pad and some low muscular walls.  The designers' description states simply that "RGR used existing concrete walls and platforms as a starting point for the scheme. The plan included re-grading of the site to create graceful slopes of grasses and wildflowers."  I think the designers are being modest.  Three of the characters in the mythology of New York City- the skyline, the river, and the bridges- are very present and the designers showed great restraint in engaging them in a subtle and direct way.  It is totally devoid of ostentation.  It is not ecstatic, precious or over-programmed.  It is unique in the city.

Anyways, it is all well and good that the more robust and vital the mythology of a city, the more times it can reinvent and revive itself. Of course, if an immigrant wave arrives on its shores with a particular resistance to pathogens cultivated through living in filth, the city and its indigenous population might be in trouble. I myself have been drinking from East River, just so I don't meet the same fate as the people of the City of Z when New York reawakens and the new wave arrives.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Resiliency v. Efficiency and the Werner Sobek Show!

Well, it's December here in New York City, and with December comes The Nasty.  The Nasty is when the sun sets at 4:15 and biting winds barrel up and down the avenues funneled by buildings to rip right through your uniqlo jacket. Sure, New York is charming this time of year with the Hanukah lights and the holiday drinking, but The Nasty is here and it's going to stay a while. Which is why I start attending the lectures at the Architectural League with regularity. It's time to stay inside and shuttle cattle-like from home to office to lecture to home.

The Architecture League is one of the best consolation prizes in being banished to New York City. Most good designers don't live here and so mistakenly think it a wonderful notion to visit and give a lecture (and the ones that do live here figure "ah, what the hell"). Last week German architect/engineer Werner Sobek gave a long-winded presentation of his work and his philosophy. The work was fascinating and the philosophy was full of good Germanic phrases like "living in the future", "it must be perfect" and "designed with perfect efficiency". All of this was presented in a tidy monotone with a pretentious sneer and I highly recommend that you sneak a peak at his twirling umbrellas if you get a chance.

But to the larger point: recently Places ran a provocative piece called Fracture Critical, a fascinating critique of superefficient engineering which is subject to catastrophic failure if one piece goes wrong (this idea was then extrapolated out to apply to last year's credit crash and our society as a whole-a highly recommended read). The title comes from the engineering term "fracture-critical" which is defined by efficiency and a lack of redundancy (as well as two other characteristics which I've forgotten and can't be bothered to look up). This is in line with a point made by entomologist E.O. Wilson about biological systems. In The Diversity of Life he states that "most communities of organisms are held together by redundancies in the system. In many cases two or more ecologically similar species live in the same area, and any one can fill the niches of others extinguished, more or less." If resiliency and efficiency are opposites in engineering and also in biological systems, it follows that the design of the landscape is a dance between these two poles, choices made based on a particular deterministic or arbitrary ethos, or perhaps the outcome of non-linear dynamics.

The good scientists over at the Resilience Alliance define ecosystem resilience as "the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes."  This seems quite a logical metaphor to extend to other situations and systems. A local economy built around a single industry is destined for decline and a business sustained by a cult of personality will inevitably suffer hardship. But the two are not necessarily diametrically opposed. Perhaps there is some synergy between the two.

One of Werner's most compelling points was his insistence on "designing with energy", as opposed to material, exemplified best by the giant umbrellas. Intended to span some 50 meters across, he had his cadre of german engineers run some numbers and quickly realized that no carbon reinforced titanium rods were going to do the trick. He had to get rid of the rods. He would just spend energy on rotating the umbrellas at high speeds and the centrifugal forces would cause the fabric to spread out. Genius! And this was all justified by comparing the "embedded" energy with the energy needed to rotate the umbrellas. Of course, he didn't show any actual energy savings during the lecture, but the point about considering all energy inherent in the functioning of a structure (not just the monthly energy bill) was a very good one, if not particularly novel. The design would be highly efficient in terms of material and initial energy input, while also redundant- the umbrella fabric was engineered to have ridges and ribs reinforcing the zones prone to failure. Instead of relying on thin spokes for integrity, the fabric was shaped to employ tensile forces while resisting failure, with patches and ribs reinforcing the weak spots.

In place of balancing resiliency and efficiency as opposing characteristics, there is a synergy between the two. And there are giant umbrellas spinning above.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Weak Sauce: New York City projects published in Topos

Given the sorry state of LAM in recent years, I was thrilled when Topos landscape journal started widespread distribution nearly a decade ago. It's restrained cover and layout design, simple type, discreet advertisements, straightforward journalism and international focus made it instantly the de facto outlet for reporting on contemporary built work.

Which is why I am extremely sad to see that reputation eroding, and largely due to small-time New York City practitioners (both, curiously, are members of the NY ASLA executive board). The reason it is eroding is because of the propensity of these guys to write about their own work, especially under the guise of a disinterested third-party observer. In the last year, at least two articles have appeared in TOPOS that reflect this trend, particularly the Erie Basin Park write up by Gonzalo Cruz in issue 65. I noticed in the most recent issue that NY ASLA president and social climber Susannah Drake has written up her "Sponge Park" design, though I haven't bothered to read that yet and so can't report on whether she was upfront about her bias toward that promising project.

Now I'm not here to decry the quality of the article or the merits of Gonzalo's project (the project is not significant and the writing will make you wretch). I'm primarily concerned with the dishonesty of writing about one's own work as if you were a disinterested observer, and the fact that this may be a recent trend in Topos. The article is primarily treated as a chance to expound on the rising importance of waterfront parks in New York City (which would have be a significant new trend in 1989, but is old hat at this point) and in particular this new park built by IKEA for the people of New York City. There is no mention of the contrast and irony in the situating of this park directly across from the far more interesting and vital Red Hook Farm. Suffice it to say that the park looks okay, but is largely devoid of imagination and is not worth visiting. And the article should be ripped out of your copy of Topos- it is the fucking weak sauce.
 Interestingly, within that same issue is an article titled "Dancing Concepts" by Bart Brands of the excellent Dutch firm Karres en Brands (profiled by 'Scape Magazine back in 2006).  The article describes the design process from first-person point of view for a series of community spaces in Amsterdam. The author is very upfront about his integral involvement and partial perspective and instead of trying to write as a disinterested third-person, he uses first person to give us meaningful insights and thoughts and intuition behind various experiments and decisions in the execution of the design. It's an honest article about an interesting project, one which provokes thought and allows for criticism and praise, as opposed to bile-inducing prosaic paragraphs that make you upset and leave you feeling queasy.

I hope that Ms. Drake's article takes its cues from Bart Brands and not Mr. Cruz. It would be sad to see Topos continue down that slippery sell-out slope where they are no longer an outlet for critical writing and fair journalistic reporting and instead just become a mouthpiece of self-promotion for mediocre practitioners designing vapid projects in the glamorous cities of the world. 

If you have a chance and you like Topos, drop the editor an email.  The last thing the profession needs is another LAM.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

You only go to Midtown if you're a masochist

The NYALSA President's Dinner was held in NYC this past week and one of the guests of honor was DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.  In the last three years Sadik-Khan has reached cult status here in the city; she is a potent combination of geeky transportation guru, guerilla designer, and hipster chic.  She gives talks with Mitchell Joachim and David Byrne, Transportation Alternatives chief Paul Steely "Don't call me Steely" White is a big fan, and she initiated the popular Summer Streets program, all while holding court in Albany and ruthlessly expanding bike lines and pedestrian amenities throughout the city.  She's got a cadre of young upstarts in her department that think bikers and pedestrians have priority over the maniacal cab drivers and trash trucks, and sometimes she even takes their side.

But, I'm not here to list her accomplishments.  I am here to critique the tangible results. 

Being as we've had a few weeks of still-pleasant fall weather in the city I took the chance to spend some time on Broadway, the site of the city's "Green Light for Midtown" project.  The DOT's website describes the project as "a pilot program... to reduce traffic congestion throughout Midtown Manhattan through targeted improvements on Broadway, focused on Times and Herald Squares".  They go on to explain that because Broadway is the anomaly in the famous Manhattan grid, it creates traffic snarls at every major intersection.  The press release cleverly frames the entire project as a congestion-easing measure, promising to reduce traffic signal wait time. 

However, a major thrust of the project is the wholesale repurposing of the most contentious areas of Broadway for pedestrian space and bike lanes.  They do this with a simple palette of materials that had been tested in less controversial locations in Manhattan in 2007 and 2008 and which you can find in their Street Design Manual (a straightforward and pragmatic toolbox that every urban designer should have on their server).  These include highway paint, bollards, planters, tables and chairs, some concrete, and an epoxy pavement coating.  That is it. 

The green bike lanes have been implemented throughout the boroughs in areas where there is high bicycle traffic to increase biker visibility.  The pavement markings, bollards, and epoxy coatings had previously been used to create protected pedestrian destinations right in the road bed at other locations on Broadway, notably Madison Square Park in front of the Flat Iron Building.  In addition, a bike lane had been striped along Broadway all the way from Central Park to Union Square, connecting the whole of Midtown. 

The sophistication in this simple strategy is staggering- the materials for converting the road bed from automobile use to pedestrian use were limited to that which the DOT's own contractors knew how to quickly install which meant there was infinitely less beaurocratic red tape for getting approvals and hiring design consultants.  The materials are not fine, but the recognition that these particular spaces were so crowded with pedestrians and bikers clamoring for their own share of the road was key- the landscape didn't need to attract people, only accomodate them.  To install the new plaza spaces at Madison Square Park (Broadway and 23rd) the local community board was given a week's notice.  The change happened overnight.  That was 2008. 

In 2009, planting islands were installed along the east side of broadway and it was striped for parking to create a protected bike lane.  Then the pilot project was begun.  And everyone wrote about it hysterically- it was a polarizing moment, and everyone claimed credit (including the pedantic sychophants over at Project for Public Spaces).  Well, now it's six months later, and given that two seasons have passed and the hysteria/euphoria has subsided a bit, I thought now would be a good time to take a walk up Broadway and survey the scene.

To walk anywhere in Midtown near Times Square is a horrible, horrible thing.  It was my hope that now it would be a little less worse.

Beginning our walk at 23rd Street at Madison Square Park we can see all of the tables and chairs, the huge chunks of leftover rock, the giant concrete planter pots, and the painted and epoxy coated roadbed.  It is mid-afternoon and most people are talking on cell phones or finishing a late lunch.  Despite the fact that there is no grade separation from the traffic, people are at ease in the space. 

Heading north, the bike lane is used, by bikers, vendors, and pedestrians on the move.  That is one of the paradoxes of bike lanes; if they are unprotected, just a 3' striped lane next to fast traffic, they are constantly invaded by taxis and other cars,  If they are protected from traffic and so next to the sidewalk they tend to get used by people as sidewalk overflow space.  On Broadway a deliberate effort has been made to mix bikes and pedestrians.  The distinctly painted bike lanes pass between the sidewalk and the amenity zone with plants, chairs, and benches.  This creates a constant crossover between pedestrians looking to have a smoke or talk or read the paper at one of the benches or tables, and the bikers moving down broadway.  Many cyclists (including myself) decry the inconvenience of dodging wayward pedestrians and vendors, but then if you want to go somewhere without being jostled, offended and inconvenienced then you should stay the hell away from Midtown, and NYC in general.  Throughout New York City most of the bike lanes are aligned with the automobile traffic so it is a logical move to differentiate Broadway by changing this relationship and mixing the pedestrians and cyclists.  It becomes more of an avenue for strolling and less of a thoroughfare.

As one gets to Herald Square all of Broadway is shut down and given over to pedestrians.  The flagship stores of retail titans such as Macy's fully dominate the space with their obscene displays.  The high buildings reflect light from billboards and project the constant car horns and sirens.  Everywhere is capitalist bedlam always.  And in the middle of this, there are some simple moves, and these are the most lovely, most poetic item in all of midtown:  the street is taken over, painted, protected, and tables and chairs are placed in it.  These tables and chairs are always there anytime of the day or night, painted in their little primary colors, and all of the tourists from the midwest and Europe can sit down there and talk about New York.  The presence of these spots where one can sit and relax without buying anything is a poignant counterpoint to the gawdy commercialism all around.  To be fair, midtown is a fantastic spectacle and has many fascinating moments, including the new TKTS booth, which simultaneously makes a voyeur and exhibitionist of everyone.  But this newly public space, where one doesn't have to buy anything, where a person can sit and make a call or talk to a friend or look around without standing in a line or being jostled on the sidwalk is a real revelation.  And it is all done with the cheap, easily implemented palette established by the earlier projects.

The "Green Light for Broadway" project and its effects are being studied now.  Public feedback and professional observation will be combined with traffic monitoring and further modeling to determine the efficacy of the program and the possibility of expanding it further.  If the project is deemed successful and politically palatable, the changes will be made more permanent, likely with a more elaborate design and construction process.  Within Bloomberg's next term, it is conceivable that a tree-lined, bike-friendly Broadway could link new plazas from Union Square to Columbus Circle at the edge of Central Park with dedicated bike and bus lanes.  If such a project does come about, the profession of landscape architecture will no doubt literally fall over itself to head the effort and get a couple of it's prominent practicioners set up in the limelight.  It will be important for them to remember the lessons that can be learned out there on Broadway right now.  The landscape is successful because it accomodates people- its materials are durable and resilient and easy to use and understand, it enables different uses and prescribes none, and it protects them from traffic while giving them a chance to view the bedlam going on around.  Vendors can set up a little easier, bikers can pick their way through the people, and there is ample seating and walking space for all, whether they have money to spend or not.

Of course, with some additional time and money, good designers will discern ways to make certain moments a little more variable and meaningful.  The new pedestrian spaces may need to be raised up to the level of the sidewalks instead of the roadbed, and the location and type of bike lanes will have to be considered.  But mostly, the new landscape design is successful because it stays the hell out of the way.  We would do well to take note.

In the meantime, if you live in NYC or have passed through Broadway this summer, the DOT is looking for feedback.  Feel free to chime in.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tactics v. Strategies- What Would Juvenile Do?

Recently that sweet blog DPR-Barcelona made brief mention of the group Supersudaca and their response to an article in the recent issue of Volume regarding the future of public housing.  Their poignant- if awkwardly worded- piece "LA Collective:  Latin America's parallel history as Occident's laboratory backlash" is a good read.  Supersudaca is generally a fun and provocative bunch (and you can find a couple of their fun, provocative projects written up in the latest Praxis).  Curiously, they share ther delightfully tacky aesthetic sensibility and sense of levity with another one my favorites- Tom Leader Studio.

The thing that fascinates me, besides the tackiness, is their approach to architecture/landscape.  They focus on projects that are often tiny in scale and of dubious legal legitimacy.  In this approach a central theme arises:  urbanism as the dynamic between tactics and strategies (as opposed to the brainchild of the singular genius, or the deterministic result of market forces).  Their "Arquitectura Directa" is a messy little publication showing many projects, all in Latin America, that focus on tactical urban interventions as a way of affecting change in the city.  This blurring of the line between architecture and vandalism, this guerrilla architecture, is a fascinating study in architecture-as-catalyst, where the result is a new social or market dynamic, not a beautiful building; working with limited resources, focusing on the social dynamics catalyzed and created as opposed to built form and expression of power.

These minor interventions happen as people take possession of a space and make it their own.  A good example of what I mean are the bird houses that have sprung up in the last year along the Gowanus Canal here in Brooklyn.  Called the Gowanus Nest Colony, the pretty-painted birdhouses are a perfect foil for the for the macabre beauty of the canal along with the wildlife that carves out habitat on its soiled banks.

These interventions and their effects- the ability to work on a small scale in ways that regular people can understand and contribute to- are a fertile field in the profession of landscape/architecture.  It's a demystification of the professions that shape cities, in turn encouraging democratic compliance, not merely tacit approval, among both professionals and the public.  This small scale, tactical approach as opposed to an over-arching, all-encompassing urban strategy is similar in many ways to Twitter versus the New York Times, Wikipedia versus the Encyclopedia Brittanica sold door-to-door in the 70's.  Both ground-up and top-down approaches have strengths and shortcomings and are more or less appropriate depending on the situation.  However, the power players who make their money and draw their security on the specialization and institutionalization of the right to make urban interventions (through laws, money, expectations, and accolades) have tended to dominate the conversation.  But this is not always appropriate.  And if design is a search for the appropriate intervention in a given place at a given time and not a clamouring for notoriety, then there should be more Canal Nest Colonies. 

The missing link is how does one monetize this ethos?  How does one make a business model from this tactical approach to landscape/architecture?  This is not easy; even twitter and youtube struggle to turn a profit, despite their popularity.  For the last fifty years the answer has been to parlay a few interesting ideas into an academic post where you are insulated from the vagaries of the market (and prior to that, it was best to be a "Gentleman Architect").  It seems Supersudaca  supports their forays into tactical landscape/architecutre with a grant from the Prince Claus Funds organization and a day job in a regular architecture office.  Part of the answer seems to be searching for another way of quantifying the value of this work- maybe it is not worth money but it is worth something that the community or certain benefactors can bestow.

At any rate, the idea of direct architecture as a tactical approach to urban interventions is promising, at least as opposed to the standard strategy of Panem et Circenses.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Shitty Eco-Urban Park-like Place

In the past decade or so many articles have been written and promising careers made by speculating on the potential of landscape and architecture for remaking infrastructure.  The movement has even given rise to the "emerging field" of landscape urbanism, home of such new school luminaries as Chris Reed, Liat Margolis, Pierre Belanger, and Kate Orff.  This movement, coinciding nicely with the rise of web 2.0 and parametric design capabilities, have given bldg blog and pruned a fertile field to plow.  Budding young academics have taken the mandate to make beautiful, bombastic drawings about just how fun and beautiful things will be if we make all infrastructure social.

The adoption of this mindset is now ubiquitous to the point of becoming almost passe [sic].  Every thesis from Penn or Harvard deals with this subject, and the revolution is coming to a university near you.  Despite all of this attention, the treatment of this new design paradigm is still largely superficial and celebratory, with little effort being made to discuss the real implications of a newly social/ecological infrastructure.  And so we end up with proposals like a new water infrastructure for the city of Chicago that conjures images of the White City, or the remaking of the notorious Gowanus Canal into a neighborhood amenity that resembles the banks of the Sienne.  Everything is beautiful and clean and new, except for the old things which are preserved as pretty relics.

Now, I should offer up here that most of the people making these proposals are much-esteemed and putting out intelligent work.  However, the tone of the writings and renderings tend to be one of placation as opposed to provocation (Julie Barmann et al not included).  There is a reticence to admit the fact that most of these operations they propose to incorporate into social urban spaces are messy.  In fact almost any place where work is done is messy, be it a healthy forest floor where bacteria decompose the detritus of the previous growing season or a concrete plant.  Yet, when designers claim they can take the stormwater infrastructure of a city and daylight it, making it a cultural amenity for all to experience we end of with projects like this

Now, the above project riles me up.  I love the idea, but the renderings are disingenuous.  They don't admit or address what will surely be a major issue with the plazas when they are built; namely they don't deal with the grime and dirt that comes from recycling a city's water.  This is major theme in landscape/architecture/urbanism- take the pretty, leave the ugly.  And this undermines our credibility in the eyes of the engineers, beaurocrats, and sensible citizens (as opposed to those unsensible ones). 

To seriously tackle the undertaking of constructing socio-ecological infrastructure- productive landscapes- designers can embrace the seedy underbelly of engineering.  This mind-shift, would give rise to a whole generation of Bukowski-esque landscapes.  Muddy zones in public plazas where seedlings are propagated, unkempt areas of public parks where people are able to dump their compost of or see their grey water at work, newly engineered bio-rafts accessible only by catwalk where the food waste of the West Village is composted. 

Landscapes that functioned as systems and not just as stages for entertainment would be deployed throughout the city, much like corrugated pipe and asphalt is today.  This is not a novel idea and most of the big ideas comptetitions these days deal directly with the topic.  But until we stop showing renderings that assume sewage is pretty, and trash smells nice, we will continue to implement these stategies in a superficial and piecemeal way, creating didactic landscapes that point out "I am a bio-filtration swale.  I filter stormwater" while the real infrastructure remains underground and out of sight.  Storage and staging grounds have always been a part of any working landscape, be it a backyard garden or Lower Manhattan.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Could you pass the Stabilization Wedge?

I've recently come across an interesting article from Science magazine (link) called Stabilization Wedges:  Solving tomorrows climate problems with technologies available today.  Evidently it's big deal because it's oft-cited and even has it's own game named after it.

I think the extremely straightforward title is explanation enough, but it is interesting to note that this strategy and 6 of these specific wedges (out of 7) were used by Al Gore in his powerpoint presentation that won him a Peace Prize and helped make him a billionaire reverse carpetbagger (he notably left out the more controversial and critical nuclear "wedge").  In essence, this thoroughly pragmatic approach outlines how policy shifts can account for our current and projected energy needs while cutting carbon to agreed upon "safe" levels as we figure out techonological ways to stave off the climatic apocalypse. 

So, I find this idea fascinating, and also a great title- a metaphor of the kind I so enthusiastically criticized Blum for- and started thinking about how this could be applied to the design of the landscape.  The critical aspect to their presentation is not the full utilization of clean technologies and conservation measures, but rather the implementation of stop-gap measures designed to hold until a threshold is crossed, at which point another tactic is employed to solve the issue.

The interesting thing is, in very simple-minded and standard ways, landscape architects do this now; we used geotextiles to stabilize newly graded slopes until plant roots grow in, we use guy wires to stabilize newly planted trees until their roots spread, we put in detention swales to retain storm water until it has a chance to percolate into the ground or sewer system.  These are long accepted practices, small scale interventions that entail the deployment of a stop-gap measure, a stabilization wedge for a limited amount of time.  And that is the key.

These are tactics- on the ground solutions- that work with and make up larger overarching strategies for a site.  These could be conceived of and deployed to not just to retain soil until roots grow in, but to catalyze a micro-economy, establish a successional planting scheme, to provide a place for squatters, artists or other mobile and active populations until more long-lived and socially viable communities are established.  There is a lot of interesting writing out there right now about shrinking cities and how our models for development which were always based on growth, can be reconceptualized to be based on shrinking.  Stablization wedges could be used in myriad forms to ease transitions and guide these processes.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Happiness is a Warm Gun: The contemporary fixation on landscape as metaphor

Recently Places posted an article by writer Andrew Blum titled Metaphor Remediation: A new Ecology for the city.  This could perhaps slide quietly under the radar where it not also the final chapter in the new Michael Van Valkenburg Associates book and constantly beating the drum:  "I'm a new urban manifesto.  Do what I say."  This particular article is symptomatic of a larger predilection among urban design critics towards metaphor and a general tendency to conflate the term "metaphor" with "myth".  It is not particular to Mr. Blum.  However, I recently had his article shoved in my face twice, and so will focus on that as an example.

Firstly, he starts with a sentimental story about going to Jones Beach for the day with his family as a kid.  Upon returning to New York City in the evening, he sees it rising up in the distance "emitting wavy lines of heat like a cartoon pie" (now that is a real metaphor; a weird and ineffectual one, but at least a metaphor). 

Then, in the second paragraph he begins to set up his thesis.  He does this by throwing in a for-free eye catcher- "the efficiency of cities"- which he expects us to assume as true and upon which he hopes to build his argument.  We can all imagine that he is referring specifically to less material consumption needed for infrastructure, both physical and social, but in reality this assumption is a lot more nuanced than that and shouldn't be bandied about with such recklessness.  This claim is based on the work of brilliant physicist Geoffrey West and is extrapolated from his Metabolic Theory of Ecology (for a smart writeup of how the theory applies to urban centers, see Mr. West's article in Seed Magazine).  The Places article glibly glosses over the negative and 'inefficient' aspects of the theory which states that when a city's population doubles, all of its function increase by a rate of 15% as a general rule.  So, the number of patents increase by 15%, individual weath increases 15%, but also waiting times increase by 15%, traffic increases 15%, disease increases 15%, crime increases 15%.  So extrapolate that out, and you see you are getting less bang for your buck (if the population goes up 100% but patents only 15%, that's not more efficient.  And if a city of 1 million has an average traffic commute of 20 minutes and that same city increases in population to 2 million people, all of which have an average commute of 23 minutes, that's not more efficient than 2 cities of 1 million where people commute 20 minutes).  Suddenly this claim seem dubious, and while I can assume what he is actually trying to say, this statement at the very least requires a more nuanced approach than throwing it between some hyphens.

However, that is not my main gripe.  My main gripe is his insistence on defining the urban landscape via metaphor.  This is offensive.  Metaphor is a wonderful and oft employed literary device used to illustrate a point, lend symbolic importance, and draw parallels and connections between ideas, events, people, and things.  Everyone from the Beatles to Beowulf has employed metaphor to paint fantastic pictures and tell stories that have become a part of the collective conscience.  Nonetheless, the contemporary predisposition to describe the landscape and landscape processes through metaphor is annoying, be it from excellent practitioners and academics such as Colin Rowe and James Corner, or young upstarts from Brooklyn who don't exactly know what a metaphor is (ahem, Mr. Blum).

Tolkien had a point in his dislike of metaphor.  Metaphor is limited in that it is defining; if 'something' is 'something else', then it is not a lot of other things.  We know from Schrodinger's Cat that by defining something, by looking specifically for certain outcomes, we are deciding all of the things that it is not, we are limiting possibilities .  To bound landscape interventions within the confines of a single metaphor is effecient and tidy, yet often inappropriate, especially regarding complex urban sites that offer a palimpsest of historical, social, and ecological narratives.  Landscapes and landscape projects are more appropriately described through mythology, allegory, and simple descriptive prose.

Blum, unfortunately, then proceeds to tell us he will examine a couple of MVVA projects for their metaphorical benefits.  Now, I am a huge fan of MVVA's work, and am loathe to equate their proposal for the highline (truly thoughtful and challenging) with the winning entry (Field Operations' fashion runway sexed-up with today's hot styles).  Blum then begins to vaguely define MVVA's conceptual and critical approaches to the design of the urban landscape which quickly degenerates into a series of loquacious platitudes and buzzwords- a common tactic in architectural criticism.  Midway down, we are greeted with this little jewel of a paragraph:

Landscape architecture operates as part of a larger, open system of ever-increasing scales — from the flowerbed to the watershed and on up to the planet. Inevitably, increasing scale brings increasing complexity, and the straightforward facts architects count on from engineers dissolve into the theoretical models and opinions (however well-informed) of ecologists. In nature — even in the city — the facts on the ground never suggest straightforward actions. Here is where landscape architects begin a balancing act between the needs of the environment and the needs of the city.

By the end of the paragraph I am thoroughly confused.  I know that he is trying to define the practice of landscape architecture for us, and I know that he fails miserably.  Luckily, we are quickly brought back to the main dish:  Metaphorical Implications!  Metaphor, Metaphor, Metaphor!

At any rate, I am perhaps being unjust.  The article does offer some nice insight into two projects from an important professional team (though not much more than can be garnered from the D.I.R.T. and MVVA websites).  The article is okay from a scribe's standpoint.  The real problem is the larger phenomenon of Metaphor Fixation.  No single poet, novelist, or journalist would write using solely metaphor to communicate ideas and describe actions and things.  Metaphor should be used sparingly, both conceptually and critically, within the profession of landscape design.  Moreso these days with designers like MVVA who aren't so much concerned with paradise gardens but rather ecologically and socially complex sites that are not easy to define and are constantly changing. 

Mythology, mythical landscapes, and such are a much more pertinent literary device, and more exciting too.  Myths and cultural mythologies have defined, informed, and responded to societies throughout time since their inception.  From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the myth of the Wild West and the Open Road in modern day USA, myths have always been the most powerful and sophisticated method for reconciling human society and their relationship to the land.  That is not to say that there is no place for metaphor in describing contemporary landscape practice, but it is hardly the most appropriate method given the scope and scale of the problems and promises faced by the profession and society at large. Our fixation with metaphor combined with pithy insights and sweeping platitudes promises to undermine the very work that such criticism is intended to refine and expand.

Anyways, a tip of the cap to MVVA- they are working with a lot more than metaphors.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

urban landscape lab- hear Kate Orff roar

Kate Orff and her folks at the Urban Landscape Lab had a kickoff for their Safari 7 Reading Room exhibition this past week.  Accompanying kegs of Six Point and local luminaries in the Architectural Literati, including Mitchell Joachim, was a fun and interesting series of big canvas posters and a beautiful, rough, plywood model of the parts of Queens traversed by the 7 train.

The exhibition is essentially the socio-ecologic findings of the group as they rode the 7 train from beginning to end, from Flushing, Queens to Times Square.  There is documentation of the book stacks beneath Bryant Park, the weedy species that proliferate in vacant lots, the cock-fighting industry out in "barrio gallenero", and the political intrigues behind the '64 World's Fair and its physical remnants.  There is nothing profound about the findings, nothing one could not put together with a wifi connection and an mta card, but it is all well-executed and presented sensitively and with a touch of mirth.  The star of the show is a huge- approximately 10' x 15'-model of the groundplane of Queens over which the elevated 7 train travels.  Really, it is the esoteric brain-child of someone who got very intimate with the CNC-router.  That is, there are many symbols and things represented which are not readily apparent nor interesting enough to try and figure out.  But it does have headphone jacks that invite you to plug in at each stop along the 7 train and listen to a podcast that was put together discussing some interesting factoid particular to that spot.

One can't help but wonder why the 7 train was chosen.  The "Lab" states the reason as being "The MTA 7 Line is a physical, urban transect through New York City's most diverse collection of human ecosystems, and a site of continuous public engagement. Affectionately called the International Express, the 7 line runs from Manhattan's dense core, under the East River, and through a dispersed mixture of residences and parklands, terminating in downtown Flushing, Queens, the nation's most ethnically diverse county."  Perhaps more importantly, the train is elevated for most of its route, which allows New Yorkers to actually perceive some of the things they are passing.  The fact the New York's trains are primarily underground affect the mindset here in the city in a greater way than is usually acknowledged.  People rarely move through the landscape here, instead spending their time in buildings and tunnels.  On the 7 train, this is not the case.

The exhibition is a fun and idiosyncratic trip along the 7 train.  The drawings are massive and easily understandable.  While not exactly plumbing the depths of urban ecological knowledge and experience, the exhibition does an amazing job of connecting the dots and making information, and stories, accessible.  Which is exactly in keeping with their stated objectives.  You can even buy cute, themed American Apparell t-shirts that say "citizen scientist" and "pocket park ranger".  I love the de-specialization and de-mystification-of-professions they are promoting here, making info and ideas accessible and encouraging synergy and interaction.  Jimmy Corner and the rest of the ivory tower elite better watch out- Ms. Orff and her ilk are coming for you.

I highly recommend you cruise through the office of Studio X to check it out.  It's on exhibit until the end of the year.  Here's to hoping that the Lab has many more wonderful exhibitions.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Entertainment vs. Work; the changing nature of recreation in new york

Recreation has been synonymous with public parks almost since their inception. This legacy is passed to us today by the usually staid and stultifying beaurocracies known as Parks and Recreation Departments. These agencies can be found in most major cities and are responsible for the codification of recreation and parks, for better and worse.  And like a ship listing badly they are slow to turn unless, of course, they are run by a power broker.

But the DPR is not what I'm concerned about today. There is a hard wind blowing, and with it is coming a change in the cultural significance of recreation. Since the rebirth of landscape design in the 90's and 00's, recreation has primarily been defined by entertainment, both people watching and performing. This has given rise to voyeurism and spectacle as the predominant experiences in public parks today. The excessive materialism and full relegation of labor to the purview of others (most if it having be farmed out to the machines or developing countries) has resulted in a listless and dissipated approach to public space. Even the most celebrated park to open this year, designed by the badass tag team of Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro, is an example of this- a place people wander through watching other people and pretty things, and being watched.

To understand the idea of recreation, it is helpful to go to the etymology. The word comes from the old French and means literally to "re-create" one's self. Beginning in the middle ages with countryside villas and protected grounds useful for hunting, strolling or occasionally escaping the bubonic plague, open land became a way to escape the ills of urban living.

The concept of naturalistic spaces-as-healing-places was fully deployed by the social engineers/landscape designers of the industrial revolution who began designing parks within or adjacent to dirty industrial cities with the idea of providing a place of relaxation and refreshment for the working masses and city bourgeoisie. While a brilliant stroke at the time, the success of Central Park and other places like it left a heavy legacy that narrowed the possibilities of uses for future public spaces. This paring and subsequent ossification of possible uses of public space came at a critical time as over the next one hundred and fifty years the world's population would more than quintuple and become heavily urbanized.

As time went on and our society became post-industrial a century later, our jobs became physically easy and focused on over-specialization, our lives defined by material excess. New information techonologies increased connectivity and the growth of our cities allowed for increased anonymity. A large portion of the society could pay for whatever they needed done, move about easier from place to place, and no longer knew their neighbors personally. Public space became a dead zone that you passed through, a meaningless necessity, the leftover spaces in our cities. They were parking lots and interstate overpasses and empty plazas colonized by pariahs and stigmatized by the rest. In order to revive them it was right to make them experiences that couldn't be had on the computer. So we ended up with bombastic and didactic places that screamed for attention, that sold themselves to the highest bidder, and that told you what to do. Landscape architecture became fashion, most of it shitty fashion that you would find off-season at a department store.

But today, this is changing. In recent years there has been a coupling of landscape design and infrastructure and an interest in using public spaces a staging grounds for the construction of social capital. New urban community gardens spring up in derelict lots, micro-economies are shifting and flourishing, and spaces are being appropriated for building and learning. With the failure of unfettered capitalism and techonology as a way to provide for all our social needs people are again placing their hope in public spaces.

Adriaan Geuze once stated that his goal in designing a space is to create a place that encourages people to take possession of it. It provides, protects, and challenges at once. Landscape design as cultural florescence is decadent and lacking in substance. If a place's only purpose is to entertain or delight it better be damn good to compete with social networking sites and consumer havens. The way to meaningful work in landscape design is the implementation of productive landscapes and the expansion of that term to include micro-economies, construction of social capital, and ecological infrastructures. Public space, specifically parks, can find new relevance and serve as the staging ground, not just for major entertainment events, but for myriad new uses. The question becomes, if the lawn is the perfect entertainment typology, how will these new uses influence the design of our future parks? Hopefully we figure it out, before highlines proliferate.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Man Down! Bill Thompson ends the reign of meekness

So Bill Thompson, the longtime editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, has officially resigned his post. Let the consternation and gnashing of teeth begin.

Under his watchful eye, LAM become notorious for its conservativism, almost to the point of rendering itself obsolete. The format, graphic layout, and content have remained staunchly in the 1980's despite lip-service to current issues, ideas, and work by professionals. Used to be, LAM was relevant as the only nationwide outlet for current issues in landscape architecture, and it was supplemented by scholarly journals and occasionaly short-run publications of interest.

As publishing outlets proliferated from Topos and Praxis to countless small publications, university publications, LAM maintained market share as the trade journal, the place you would go for tips, tricks, and some manufactured products. Now, with the ubiquity of the internet and the Web 2.0, LAM finds itself an irrelevant vestige of things past. No project is ever published there that isn't shown on flickr or blogged about first, and designers find manufacturers on Google a lot faster than here.

The only market share left for LAM (right now it is ubiquitous because landscape architects have to pay for it to be a memeber to ASLA which is kinda like a massive federal government backing a failing financial institution) is in the arena of critical discourse within the profession. And this is where I'll miss J. William "Bill" Thompson the most. To highlight the direction the magazine took under his leadership, I have chosen an issue at random and spent 15 minutes looking it over. Of course, we all know the full-bleed image that is always on the cover. Now, I'm not against the full-bleed, but a little discretion could perhaps be used. Some images are more interesting set in white space. Mr. Thompson loathes white space.

I have randomly chosen the issue from August 2007, and flipping through it I am quickly assaulted by one of the hallmarks of the Thompson-era LAM: the pithy designer quote! This one is a nice example in that while being a good point, it's not particularly profound. Yet LAM takes it out of context and blows it up in hideous font. Of course, it has to do that if it wants you to pay any attention to the article at all because this one, like most in the magazine, is totally overshadowed by the half-page, full-color ad for some banal landscape products.

Despite being unable to get interested in what was a promising article, I move on hoping that once I get into the "meat" of the magazine, I will find fewer ads and the content will be rightfully respected. One of the clever columns featured in each issue of LAM is "firm focus". Now, in all fairness, this article tends to pick up on firms that are not often highly publicized. Whether they are good or not is a total crapshoot, but at least it's not reporting on Field Operations and MVVA every time (that is saved for the yearly 'awards' issue). This particular issue focused on a firm that appears to be similar to 90% of the firms in the US. That is, an agglomeration of frumpy white people, the older ones in charge, the younger ones emasculated and waiting their turn to become an older one. It's a miserable and deplorable site, that firm photo of those guys sitting on the front step, one that is perfectly offset by the equal horrible-ness of the rendering set at the top of the page. There is obviously nothing interesting here, and if there is, it's not worth the pain of reading the article unless you are into masochism and auto-asphyxiation.

Thoroughly demoralized at this point, I decided to give it one last try. I flip forward a few pages and lo' and behold, my eye is caught by a compelling scene that LAM managed not to fuck up. Sure they put a goofy caption on the article as usual, but the 3/4 bleed seems to work here, and my eye is caught by the author. Jimena certainly will not be winning any Pulitzers any time soon, but at least she reports on interesting projects and does it in a thorough and professional way. She also does a good job of avoiding the campy, smarmy howdy-doody feel to the prose that Thompson pushes on the other writers, a fact which I attribute to her ESL status. Jimena is something of a John the Baptist figure at the Lord's Supper of the ASLA. She's the lone person dispatching from outside of North America consistently, and while it is tempting to commend Thompson for cultivating that relationship, it's actually an appalling track record when one considers that other, less sanctioned, less known publications get pieces from all over the globe consistently because, really, it's just not that difficult to set up over the internet. I digress. But Jimena's articles are often interesting and at least curious and offer a hint of what LAM could be like, utilizing it's (relatively) massive resources and inherent advantage as the mouthpiece of ASLA to take some risks on their reporting and writing in order to contribute to the edification of the practive of landscape design, as opposed to just the profession.

Well, it's time to wrap this up, but here's hoping that the next editor is one who has the vision to utilize the publication in relevant and interesting ways to encourage critical discourse and the appropriate practice of landscape design before it becomes completely obsolete. Thompson, at least, did manage to make the magazine digital before signing off. Better late than never.