Monday, June 06, 2011

Too Big to Solve: When Architecture Lectures Try Too Hard to Change the World

Sao Paulo-will our future be the 'favelas' or the high rises?
In my field of work, it is always a good thing to refresh one's mind with the work and research of others, especially from those who have aligned their practice towards theory and experimentation. The irony is that the more you practice as an architect, the harder it is to do just that.  Therefore a thoughtful lecture given by an architect known for his or her scholastic ambitions is a real treat--the pretty pictures, the colorful  diagrams, the project backstories--these things offer a kind of escape from the unglamorous nature of an architect's daily responsibilities. They also remind me why I chose to practice architecture in the first place. 

However, among most of the architecture lectures that I've gone to, there is a nagging tendency to justify the work presented as part of a solution to the world's biggest problems.  Whether it's a Pritzker winner or a local boutique architect, they can't help but remind the audience of the dire situation that confronts the world, and how their designs reflect far more than just a personalized response  to set of problems and client demands.   Their work is supposedly a direct extension of their all-encompassing world view, the result of having considered overarching realities, contemporary trends and developments.  According to the designer, what to me looks like another elegant apartment tower is really a kind of prototype solution to global problems such as overpopulation, environmental degradation and climate change.

While many in the audience find such presentations inspiring, I can't help but consider it another half-baked attempt at a solution that will fall well short of its promises. It's not that I don't want them to succeed, but rather that they accept a set of highly dubious assumptions to construct what seems as a compelling argument at first,  but which inevitably collapses like a house of cards once you dig a bit further. 

In spite of the  breadth of issues these designers and academics try take on, they rely on a predictably narrow set of sources and data that are prone to exaggerate and are devoid of empirical analysis.  A typical red flag for this is when they cite left-of center sources as authorative voices on their subject, even if all of them are merely dilletantes in the form of opportunistic politicians, activists or op-ed editorial writers.  It's not unusual to hear the names of celebrity dilletantes such Al Gore, James Howard Kunstler, George Monbiot, Thomas Friedman or even Barack Obama during these presentations.  Some even fall into using sensationalized Newsweek or Time magazine covers to highlight the urgency of the problems that need to be solved.   They are probably unaware that all of these sources have been discredited over and over, and some have suffered big hits to their professional integrity during the last few years.

These lectures have become formulaic, and they all seem to touch consistently on a similar set of themes. They are each framed a bit differently from presenter to presenter, but the arguments are pretty much the same. Allied with slick graphics, these presentations pack a hefty rhetorical punch, and it takes time for those who disagree to come up with reasons why they aren't persuaded. I try hard to supress my tendency to roll my eyes out of their sockets, but let's look below to see why I struggle: 

Complaints about the cost of the current status quo

Usually, this kind of  lecture starts  by highlighting aspects of contemporary life that later inform their work.  For those designers who orient themselves towards global issues, they love to use bullet points, with attractive bold graphics to list things like:

  • The costs incurred in planning infrastructure in low-density urban areas (roads, water, sewage, heating).  Municipal spending in response is supposed higher per-capita to build and maintain these services.

  • The costs incurred in driving and automobile ownership.  This is then loosely tied to the cost of using petroleum

  • The costs incurred on the medical system in the forms of heart disease, allergies, asthma, and metabolic syndrome (obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, etc.)

Along with other  dubious data points, the implication is always this: The status quo is not only costing us too much money, it's literally killing us.

What is not mentioned when discussing costs are the trade-offs from doing something else.  If we did not plan our cities along the lines of auto-centric sprawl, would the alternatives be all that much cheaper, or could they possibly be more expensive? What are the unintended consequences of a more dense walking and transit-centered policies?  Would it massively inhibit the potential economic growth that car-centric development provides?

Beyond the monetary question is the larger question about control: is the inevitable cost to personal freedom and the pursuit of wealth really worth having shiny new trains, long waits at stations and bus stops and having retail shops at the ground-floor of your apartment?

It can't go on forever

We are reminded  in these lectures that nature has its limits and the way humans exploit it will cause an impending scarcity that will threaten our civilization if we don't collectively act quickly enough.  Climate change and Peak Oil should remind us that we can't continue to live the way that we do, but that we ought to live in a way recommended by our betters in the architecture and planning community.  Peak Oil is a favorite theory of theirs, in which oil will run out sooner  than we think and car-based civilization will come to a halt. People will head for high-density cities and rely on public transit while the suburbs will turn into ghost towns.  Unmentioned is that oil reserves continue to grow almost exponentially due to technology advances that allow more oil to be recovered (re: Eagle Ford discovery).  The production of shale oil is ramping up, and is fortunately plentiful in North America.  Also unmentioned is the current natural gas boom from shale deposits that can provide up to 100 years' worth of energy for the U.S. alone (Michael Lind writes in Salon that we might be entering an age of fossil fuel abundance). 

Efficiency has doubled during the past two decades and there is room for even more efficiencies, especially as direct-injection and hybrid engines become more mainstream. The desire for  automobility is too ingrained in our modern world for it to go away, and demand for it will continue to grow in developing countries for the forseeable future.  Most spectacularly, they fail to credit market price signals that influence consumer behavior and allows people to adapt to changing levels of scarcity in one resource  for abundance in another.  Finally, they show pictures of urban blight and Third World misery, and point to them as not as the economic or social failures that they are, but as the wasteful byproduct of excessive car dependency or inadequate use of mass transit.

Markets, what markets?

As part of their general anti-market worldview, these lecturers completely avoid rational discussions on economics or market mechanisms in general.  The only time such things are mentioned is when they are abstractly criticized as being inadequate in solving the problem at hand. Markets or capitalism are objects of blame for the failing status quo.
Just as they blame markets, they will never point to bad government policies, unless such policies were tied to fostering economic and capital growth. Bad government  policies are ones that engender  wealth, plutocrats and economic inequality.  They will never mention government policies that have destroyed livelihoods, stable social structures (families), and have chased away business and real estate development-- never.  Apparently, good architecture exists outside this reality.

Detroit, MI- Red shows population
decrease, blue is expansion.
For example, cities that show clear signs of decay indicate that the market-based status quo isn't working.  Detroit is shown as evidence of the failure of unenlightened urban planning and  the capitalistic forces that led to creating an unsustainable urban model.  There is no mention of possible political reasons for Detroit's current blight, or how it may have been the result of its legendarily misguided economic and social policies (taxes, corruption, unions, crime, race relations).

Why are markets the culprit? It's because they do not follow any kind of intelligible design.  To a designer, most social and economic failures are do to a poor design or lack of one.  Never underestimate the faith that architects and planners have on design, even as policies that exhibit a high level of design tend to harm people more often than not.

If they have it, why don't we?

According to most designers, some solutions are universal. Local factors that complicate an outside solution's effectiveness are merely a nuissance.  It is not believed that different places throughout the world come up with their original solutions to planning their built environmental based on rational decision-making, geography, climate and the technology available at the time.  In older denser countries that were scaled to human or animal-based travel, linear transport systems based on fixed nodes such as rail make a lot of sense for passenger travel.  In more recently created nations, faster modes of travel than rail will take precedence if it is affordable and economically beneficial, and will logically determine city planning there.  If the automobile and airplane are sufficient to meet the transport needs of society, there will be no real demand for slower, less flexible types of transportation like rail.  Instead, every time urban or intercity rail is built in a place where cars have long been commonplace, it ends  up imposing tremendously high and permanent costs to taxpayers.

From the designer's point of view, when a place doesn't have all kinds of taxpayer-subsidized modes of transport in one place, it presents a  lack of choice. What is not stated is that collecting taxes to fund these 'choices' denies the taxpayer's freedom to choose how to spend their money on matters of transport.  In addition, many rail-based mass transit systems exist as a way for cities scaled to walking  to compete in efficiency and productivity to newer cities that are scaled to the car.  Without these, a walkable urban area is nothing more than an isolated village. 

At the national scale, one thing that these design lectures like to shame the U.S. on is the lack of  high speed rail network.  France, Germany, Spain, Japan and even poor little China has one.  Why can't we?  There is no mention to what makes these networks run--lots and lots of state money ultimately extracted from its citizens, whether they use them or not.  Beyond being huge money pits in which the cost of operations will never be recovered, their impact further urban development is negligible.  The mere notion of transit-oriented development (TOD) gives lie to the fact that preferred modes of mass transit actually generate real development at all. Instead, TOD is code for government help in areas next to stations that could not be privately developed due to the inadequacy of that mass transit's ability to provide reliable consumers/users.  It is never mentioned that greater automobility begets greater prosperity and economic freedom.  Paradoxically, the supposed choices offered by a rail-based national transit system depends on the denial of rights to property owners.

Megan McArdle from the Atlantic Magazine perfectly encapsulates this problem, writing about her own experiences in Chinese high-speed train:

Viewed from a purely technological perspective, America's high speed rail is an embarrassment compared to China's:  shaky, slow, and not particularly sleek.  But viewed in another way, our slow rail network is the price for a lot of great things about America:  our limits on government power, our democratic political system, and the fact that we're already rich enough to have an enormous amount of existing infrastructure, in the form of houses, industrial plant, and roads, that would be very expensive to tear up in the name of building rail lines.  All in all, I think these things are more valuable than even a really cool train system.

Back to the City

Design lecturers repeatedly spout the mantra of the inevitable triumph of the dense centralized urban core and the withering away of the suburbs.  Large cities are more sustainable, more resilient to energy scarcity and have an overall economic advantage over smaller communities due to the proximity between all kinds of economic players.  They recycle the same statistics that show the rapid rise of urbanization throughout the globe and conclude that the development of megacities is likely, and that solutions are needed to deal with this unstoppable flow of migrants.  Nowhere in these statistics is there a breakdown in the distribution of which cities are growing, and how much of it is in reality suburban development.  There is no doubt fewer people are still farming, and are indeed moving to more urban locales for work.  It is not clear whether this always takes the form  of Bladerunner-styled urban development.

If anything, the big elephant in the room is the general fact that the population of urban areas have been dispersing at an accelerating rate.  The 2010 US Census provides incontrovertible evidence, showing almost all the nation's metropolitan centers have seen their inner- and outer-ring suburbs continue to grow while their core continue to stagnate or decline.  Whatever new developments that have occurred in central cities has only managed to attract upper-class singles and professionals, thus inflating property values while chasing out the middle to lower-middle class to the suburbs.  In fact, I predict that the main challenge for planners and architects in the coming century will be on how to retool the suburbs to function more efficiently while still offering residents "a place in the sun", an inherently natural human desire. 

Still, I think most designer-types will stick to finding ways to leave their mark on central cities, which are increasingly resembling resorts that cater to a uniformly wealthy leisure class who like to work in pretty environs. These gentrifying areas have long ceased being transformative economic zones accessible to people in all walks of life.  Such basic functions have gone to urban peripheries. 

There is a recurring irony here: these designers and lecturers take urban problems seriously and come up with serious solutions resulting from a highly reflective and sober design process--yet share an unserious understanding of actual urban trends and reality.

The future will be compact and geometric

The solutions presented is in a way the biggest letdown of these lectures. One hopes for something truly new and imaginative, but one is presented with nothing but a warmed-over  urban scheme reminiscent of what architectural prophets like Le Corbusier or Tony Garnier  were drawing up a century ago.   The concepts that are often floated  consist of a highly geometric pattern, either linear or radial, with dense blocks,  often anchored to public transit or other means of centrally managed conveyance and keep automobile use at a minimum .

No suggestions are ever made on how to get from here to there.  No mention of what the cost will be to implement these ideas.  For all their talk about their plans' sustainable advantages when it comes to the environment, there is little said about their inherent financial unsustainability.  They propose a massive realignment of infrastructure for mass transit lines that are highly dependent on public subsidy;  cost more to maintain and operate over time; become more inefficient over time as a result of the inevitable increase in labor costs due to unionization.  They propose transit systems that have historically never come close to covering their operating costs from fees charged to riders, and have instead looked to outside sources of public funds (i.e. taxpayers) to keep running.

Such an enormous amount of money and bureaucratic power  to achieve these goals leads one to conclude that many architect lecturers pine for some kind of benevolent leviathan state.  For all the material progress that we have enjoyed from market capitalism during the last century, and for all the unparalleled bounty it has provided to architects, it seems that many of my colleagues won't be happy until as much private wealth can be taxed to subsidize a more designed, and thus more beautiful tomorrow.

There is nothing wrong with lectures and books that show these designers are engaged.  It's just that I wish they would be engaged with a cultural, social, and especially economic reality most people outside the profession have to deal with.  In those lectures that focus mostly on innovative masterplans and ambitious urban concepts, it would help to ground them a bit more in the challenge of actual urban economics-- why and how certain urban densities occur on their own; why some districts thrive and others decay; What are the actual observed usage patterns of certain buildings, and to what extent they can be reshaped by the designer (designers architects LOVE creating diagrams--abstracted graphics explaining how a design ought to work but rarely about how it actually will work). 

For every new idea that they propose, they need to think what the tradeoffs will be upon implementation.  A nice park system or extensive bicycle path network would no doubt be nice things to have,  but how does one ensure that the budget for their maintenance and expansion will be there year after year? It's doesn't suffice to simply declare to let all cars go to hell and the roads decay, since all that does is to weaken the necessary economic base upon which public funds depend. If they plan with the sole focus on a high-density future, is there an alternative if the future turns out to be less populated and more suburban in character?  If self-driving cars take off, thus solving major dilemmas such as traffic, accidents and even parking, will they be willing to abandon the classic transit-oriented model of development?

As someone who is repulsed by the idea of an all-controlling centralized leviathan state, I tend to take the view that a designer should aim to solve a set of problems that don't involve a radical overturning of the status quo.  If that makes me "not part of the solution" and thus "part of the problem", my answer would be that I don't find our world all that problematic, compared to the alternatives. Fully accepting of the fact that humans are fallible with a tendency towards the tragic, I don't subscribe to the notion that society is somehow perfectable.  I also reject the notion that because architects weave a variety of disciplines from the artistic and philosophical as well as the scientific, they are in a special position to offer grand solutions to the way in which we live.  Advances in our quality of life throughout human history have been spurred by unpredicted technologies, spontaneous social revolutions, and military conquest--not by some elegant grand design. For human beings to spurn such grand designs should not be understood as a failure of human beings, but as a failure of planners to understand them.

Let's go back to architecture lectures in which the projects are a poetic and sophisticated solution to problems posed by the site and the client's needs.  There's a lot to be explored and think about within these simple parameters.  When a lecturer tries to make the discussion go beyond these parameters, I sometimes suspect it's a means of covering-up a rather shallow and unworkable design.  The architecture that moves me most examines building's most fundamental forces, such as gravity, weather, light, and human memory.

Just spare me the alarmist statistics, please.