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.