Thursday, October 25, 2007

Overscaled and Underpeopled- The Continuing Legacy of Le Corbusier in the 21st Century

A true pleasure of our profession is browsing the architectural publications. Each month, magazines and websites feature beautiful photographs of recently completed buildings with their sleek high-tech construction details. In addition one finds copious artistic renderings of future projects accompanied by articles that serve mostly as public relations for the associated designers and affirms the latest theoretical trend. The content is nothing but positive, with renderings showing an ideal reality where the sky is always blue and the people on the street are plentiful. That's to be expected, as the renderings are often commissioned by the client to sell the project to investors. One is not going to buy into the idea if one doesn't imagine the enchanting future portrayed by the picture.

The problem with far too many ambitious designers, in my opinion, is that they often fall for the reality portrayed by the seductive rendering. This is hardly a new observation, as architects throughout much of their recent history have been the object of endless scorn in confusing the ideal reality found in their drawings for the imperfect and unpredictable nature that defines the real world.

The heroic architects of the twentieth century were in particular guilty of such a temptation, the most notorious example being Le Corbusier and his urban schemes and masterplans. Le Corbusier presented a romantic image of the modern industrial city laced with monumental highways, airstrips and monumental towers surrounded by parks. As difficult it is to imagine with today's hindsight, Le Corbusier's pictures appealed to many young idealists who found this totally new urban landscape exciting and inspired, as they yearned to break free from the accumulation of civilizational detritus of their own cities during the 1920s (I know...what were they thinking?). As I have written earlier, Le Corbusier cannot be accused of directly overseeing massive unpopular urban interventions, nor of actually realizing any of his numerous masterplans for cities as far as Stockholm, Paris, Algiers and Rio. Rather, he is guilty for having imagined and illustrated a theory for a new kind of city so persuasively so as to become highly influential.

As we begin another century, there are many talented contemporary architects that indulge in whishful idealizations of reality via their computer models and photoshop software. They embrace a gigantic scale when conceiving a public space and organizing various programs in similar manner to the Swiss master himself. The heirs to the Modern movement continue to view architecture more as sculptural forms upon a neutral landscape, completely cut-off from surrounding urban context or the prevailing planning patterns of traditional settlements in the locale. Though at time quite beautiful and boldly poetic, these major developments are the result of a tremendous scope of control, where the parts that make up the whole are all defined by a central author in the form of a singular designer and their semi-governmental client. They are the opposite of the organic growth that characterizes most of our traditional settlements, where each lot is developed in fits and starts according to the ability of the community to sustain them at the time.

These ideas came to mind when I came across this article posted on the Archpaper website. It describes a speculative project developed by the Malaysian government near the city of Penang which will include a whole host of new buildings and various functions in the hope of raising the country's international profile as a center of business and industry. The New York firm Asymptote, which has built a reputation for its ultra-futuristic design, was awarded the job to design the entire project, which includes a luxury hotel, condos, offices and shopping. The first thing that jumped out when looking at these elegant images was the vast sense of scale: large open-ended plazas, endless expanses of glazed curtain walls and the tiny dot-like figures people that are almost undetectable.

The Penang project appears to be an example of a precinct, an assembly of similarly functioning buildings isolated in a clearly demarcated area, planned in isolation of the surroundings. Such precincts often have the drawback of lacking pedestrians, especially during periods when there is no programmed event taking place. I predict that upon its completion, the place will feel like a ghost town of mirror and glass, its urban effect deriving more from the soaring and twisting towers crowning the landscape from afar than from any kind of chance encounters or colorful everyday crowds up close. The stark ambience suggested in the rendering remind me of my experiences visiting a similar kind of development in France. Conceived a half-century before, the cutting-edge commercial precinct of La Defense in Paris shares much in common with current boom in overscaled modern business complexes sprouting throughout the developing world, with its vast public spaces, its sculptural buildings, and an utter lack of street life regardless of how many high-profile entertainment spectacles are produced to prop up pedestrian activity. In spite of a decent indoor shopping street and a one-of-a kind monumen in the Grand Arche, the only silhouettes to be seen outside are the contemporary sculptures.

Asympote will obviously provide a visible and inspiring landmark to Malaysians deperately wanting to appropriate the qualities of economic success and technological progress. However, it will likely contribute little to any kind of enriched urban experience from the point of view of pedestrians. Such a tradeoff has always been inherent in the development of large-scale Modernist masterplans, since the first World War. With the consolidation of state and bureaucratic power during the twentieth century, it has become only easier to emphasize an urbanism of increasing scale, abstract symbolism combined with a highly detailed and complicated functional program. Under such plans, communities are seen one-dimensionally, since they are somehow expected to emerge as a logical product of a well-conceived plan. The notion that a community consists of unseen exchanges between individuals (with their own irrational preferences) at all sorts levels is completely alien to these grand planners.

Current state governments who employ massive building policies as part of the national interest have almost never succeeded in creating successful urban spaces that people enjoy. It's the nature of a bureaucracy, an entity dictated by fulfilling the needs of their constituent population. A sense of community and urbanity is something people must want and choose to have, something best left to the people of an area and manifested by the trading of private property and goods. I fear that the developing world is much too focused on "catching up" with industrialized nations and thus willingly forgo the establishment of socially rich urban experiences within their expanding cities. In spite of the impressive feats of engineering in many of these projects (Asymptote envisions their design to be "carbon neutral") I am none too enthusiastic about them overall, since none of them seem to exhibit any real authenticity or sense of place.

It is not unusual for leading influential designers to seek work designing large complexes of buildings in the middle of nowhere in undeveloped areas. What it does reveal, however, is the tendency for many elite architects to prefer to work for big and powerful clients at the cost of diminishing the authentically unique character of local communities.

For these designers, nothing must come in the way of realizing their gleaming "towers in the park". For me, that isn't good enough.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Where Are All the People? Why New Urbanism still succeeds

In my previous post, I discussed at length one of the numerous contradictions within New Urbanism and the contemporary economic and cultural context. Among the other unmentioned shortcomings of this influential urban movement is their frequent failure to facilitate enough street life as depicted in many of their glowing colored renderings. These new town centers would be immaculate, and the businesses would be there, but overall there are few people to be seen. Such was my experience when visiting this Duany-Plater-Zyberk designed development just outside Dallas on supposedly the busiest shopping day of Saturday. The massing of the buildings along the main shopping street was very similar to a European town, and the stores consisted of high-end boutiques, restaurants and even an art-house theatre. And yet there was almost no one on the street.

Ueber blogger James Lileks of the Star Tribune makes a similar observation on a video he made of a New Urbanist town center in Minneapolis (thanks, Ed Driscoll). His observations are spot on, and he makes cogent criticisms on major philosophical assumptions among architects. View the video here...

Apeman over at Etherealland has written a very insightful response to my essay that is well worth pondering over. He points out to other flawed assumptions fundamental to New Urbanism that are real, but I don't agree the writer's indictment of the movement as suggested in his headline: "Why New Urbanism is doomed to Failure".

Although I've expressed skepticism on some of the results promised by proponents of New Urbanism, I would still declare it successful precisely because it is a market-driven movement led by developers and financial institutions rather than by an academic elite with their allies in government bureaucracy. The arguments against New Urbanist developments are compelling, since I share many of them myself, but other major alternative paradigms in urban planning are not nearly as appealing to those who take the risk in building with their own private funds. Add to that the preferences of average people on the street and in city councils with regards to urban spaces and New Urbanism promises more potential to expand and evolve into a more sophisticated strategy in the future. There is an organic quality to it that is compatible to an American culture that celebrates private real-estate, community participation (among private property owners) and an overall modesty in building scale. In spite of New Urbanism's resemblance to the Modernist CIAM movement in its high level of organization and mobility in advocating ideas, there is an appealing anti-elitism that the latter uses as the starting point of their philosophy that harmonizes well with the ingrained skepticism of intellectuals and the academy shared by many Americans (it might go a long way in explaining the relative retrograde character of new construction in the U.S. compared to the aggressive Modernism more easily embraced by the rest of the world).

Just because a movement's ideas are popular does not mean that its theory is a success. I have pointed to a couple of defficiencies of New Urbanist principles that might be easy to refute, and I have observed discrepancies between what is promised and what actually happens, but rarely if ever does a sophisticated theory of any kind pan out predictably according to its dictates. What distinguishes New Urbanism from its more Modernist rivals is the degree to which its ideas result in opposite outcomes. Though the streets may seem empty and the architecture appear a bit too contrived and artificial, developers are not losing their shirts, yuppies are snapping up the units and voters gladly support private-public partnerships in building town-centers in the New Urbanist mold. In contrast, contemporary European-style urban design has resulted in often desolate overscaled public spaces, forced segregation or centrally planned integration of renters which stimulates crime, social alienation and a low level of public participation and governance. The buildings may be slick, the architectural and urban concepts forward-thinking but there is no love for such things from residents nor a demand to privately develop more of these kind of projects (which explains the high level of government involvement).

Certain aspects common in New Urbanist project do indeed make me cringe, but it would benefit those of us who would like to popularize a tasteful Modernist aesthetic to study its success and respect the strength of its doctrine.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Religion: Is it Worth It?

In a world often described as “Post-Christian”, it strikes me that Christianity is in need of a good defense these days. “Post-Christian” references the fact that the Christian religion no longer shapes the dominant culture in the way that it did from Constantine through feudalism, from the Enlightenment through American discovery and settlement. It seems to imply, as well, that the Christian church is not only less relevant in shaping lives and cultures, but it is deservedly less so. Christianity, either through action or silence has condoned slavery, protected pedophiles, and killed millions through inquisitions and holy wars, among other various crimes. Consequently, in this Post-Christian age, religion, churches, order, and even structure need to explain themselves more than in the past, because their very existence has come to be seen by many as more of a problem than a solution, a reason to dread the future rather than a reason to be hopeful.

Notice please that I did not ask if morality or virtue were “worth it.” I asked if religion was worth it. Isn’t this the perennial question of the atheist? Or because true self-described atheists are harder to find, isn’t this the question of the secular relativist, the person who distrusts authority and belief systems to the point where they can be equally followed or ignored? Even an atheist, or an anarchist would almost certainly agree that virtue is not a bad thing, that it is quite a worthy goal. But it is the institution of religion that has caused so many problems, that has paraded in the light of perfection while sweeping its own sins under the rug. Indeed, even Martin Luther could be accused of a similar critique, as he blamed the Romanists of engaging in demonic activity while assuming the role of Forgiver-in-Chief.

So the question of the value of religion is truly nothing new. The Peace of Westphalia, the truce that ended the Thirty Years War, was not the result of Lutherans and Catholics working out their differences peacefully, much less convincing one another. Instead, it was the result of this question: Is religion worth it? Are petty differences over church polity worth the lives of our children, the degradation of our land, the sin of committing murder? And since that introduction to the secular state, which I would argue can be traced to 1648, that question hasn’t fully gone away. Now, the question may begin to extend beyond Christianity, which, as it turns out, isn’t the only religion that commits abominable acts. Indeed, with the rise of Islamic extremism coupled with the power of a nuclear state, the question posed above may be more relevant now than ever. It we consider the worst-case scenario, a religion-driven Iran with a nuclear weapon aimed at Israel, or any state for that matter, wouldn’t the alternative of no religion be better? Shouldn’t we, as many secularists would either vocally argue, or passively support, just abandon religion because nothing much good comes from it?

It is here, at this crux of history, that I will try to say yes, religion is worth it. And I hope that my generation of self-serving secularists in particular hears it. I don’t know that the question is “Where has religion gotten us, and where is it leading us?” as much as, “Where would we be without it?” The atheist state has been tried, and it makes the worst Christian theocracy look pretty good. The abysmal failure of Communism and the utter lack of regard for human life on a scale as massive as Nazism demonstrate the inevitable ending place of discarding religion and the virtues they defend. While religion, especially the Christian religion, failed to effectively confront or defeat either of those forces of evil by itself, it was, I would argue, an understanding of morality bred from and promoted through religion that gave anyone a point of reference for defeating such evil. In other words, if one is not convinced of the rightness of their cause, then why bother sacrificing for it? Clearly, the sacrifices and successes made in WWII and the Cold War stem from a place of morality, which is simply impossible without religion.

What makes religion and the virtues they tend to promote so hard to appreciate is that its work, if done correctly, often goes unnoticed. By its very nature, it demands humility. While it is easy to criticize what doesn’t work in society, and to ascribe blame to the dominant cultural shaper (Christianity in America, for example), we can be pretty sure that the situation would be far worse without the moral compass to begin with. A 13-year-old confirmation student recently expressed frustration that his friends at school accused Christians of being hypocrites. I told him to embrace the label, that it’s better to be a hypocrite standing for virtue and failing rather than standing for nothing.

Of course, I am a Christian apologist, and I deeply lament the sins of my own religion and the sins of others. But I also hold out the hope that we are, as a religion, progressing to a healthier way of being. The assumption is never that religion leads to utopia, but that it teaches us how to live together in harmony, how to struggle together. Certainly Christianity promotes loving our neighbor, valuing private property, among other civil virtues. And while there are very real dangers proposed by “religious” leaders on the global stage, I shudder to think of a world devoid of religion altogether. Got that, Gen X?

Friday, October 05, 2007

What Makes a Community: The Problem of Property Ownership and New Urbanism

On a recent day I was reminded about how we young architects often make assumptions based on the way things ought to be rather than the way things are in reality. I am currently involved in mixed-use town center project in the Rockies that follows a masterplan realized by the highly exalted prophets of New Urbanism, the firm of Duany, Plater-Zyberk (DPZ). Although New Urbanism is a more flexible guide to urban and community than many of its critics are willing credit, the masterplan in question was predictably consistent with the traditional New Urbanist aesthetic: dense blocks with street-level retail and several stories of housing above, traditional typologies that that define the various program along with modest building proportions that reflect visual hierarchies from the street. The feel of the DPZ renderings evoke an unmistakably European character, reminding one more of and idyllic Salzurg than a growing city in mountainous American west. There is a steeple-like clock tower, a piazza with grand stairs cascading into it, and stately cinema that looks more like a Parisian opera house than your average suburban multiplex.

And naturally there are blocks and blocks of housing on top of street-level retail, much like traditional townscapes anywhere outside post-war suburbia, but with a distinctively twenty-first century twist: almost all the units will be condominiums instead for-rent apartments. My more experienced colleague had objections with that particular part of the program, declaring that all sorts of problems emerge when people own and live in dwellings above retail stores. Noises, smells, and the coming and going of service vehicles are often too much for condo boards, which have been the institutional vanguard of NIMBYism. I can image nothing more unpleasant than squabbles between the hundreds of residential owners, the handful of retail tenants and the commercial landlord. Apartments are a better fit, since such distractions are tolerable on a temporary basis, and a renter understands that they will have no input on the management of their building. Remember that government (in the abstract) is set up to protect property. Therefore the property-less, such as renters, do not participate while the property owners like condo residents must participate and are fully entitled to defend their interests as much as possible.

Then why not turn all the residential development above retail into apartments, as is traditional in many old towns and cities? I suspect that there are particular financial limits that affect large-scale developments such as instant town-centers which favor for sale residences over just rental types. Funds for other phases of a project can be procured a lot faster by selling units before construction than waiting for rents to pay off the remaining balance over many years. Condominiums have thus become lucrative, especially in a world in which equity plays an increasing role in the raising of capital. As I've written in a previous post, condominiums are becoming one of the most powerful drivers of urban development and renewal, and many real-estate intensive industries such as hospitality are looking for ways of offloading major portions of their properties with for-sale units and timeshares.

Add to this the distinctive American proclivity in owning a home, and enjoying a God-given right to profiting from one's own real-estate and the notion renting or making easy money off rentals seems downright unappealing. Apartments have an important place in the housing situation of in the U.S., but it they are perceived as having temporary value and are not the foundation on which established communities are built. From the beginning of its history Americans of the most modest of means have enjoyed the enviable privilege of owning their own property, as the abundance of land that made it affordable and created new towns out of wilderness and yet made them promptly democratic in governance. Self-defense through gun ownership became a means of ensuring stability of the newly propertied masses along the frontier and had strangely equalizing effect on who wielded political power. In this new paradigm of the American frontier town, renters would become secondary citizens, the people who were not as financially invested in the affairs of the town as the property owners.

To this day, it is understood that renting is temporary and just a transitional stage to eventual home ownership. Sad to say, In most American cities those who permanently rent are seen as destitute or just plain eccentric. When discussions arise between parents regarding what school district to move to, the presence of "apartment" kids is seen as something to be avoided. Apartment complexes are not known for their close-knit sense of community and the low-rent variety are often used as canvases for the portrayal of social breakdown in the community. In addition to the expected shabbiness of un-owned residential units, crime is more likely in among renters who have no real power to monitor various activities. In the recent mayoral election in my home city of Dallas, one of the candidates made it part of his campaign pitch that he would push for the demolition of numerous apartment complexes throughout the city as a way rooting out crime (it makes me wonder what his political party stands for these days).

The disadvantages endemic to apartment life pose quite a bit of a challenge to one of the basic tenets of New Urbanism. To live in greater density and to mix uses vertically in a block may be admirable, but how does that square with the reality that those who chose to live in the blocks aren't committed to it in the long term? How does one create strong and permanent communities where everyone is a renter? It is sensible to desire the restoration of town planning principles that have served us all well until the beginning of the twentieth century. But it should be remembered that there was significantly different dynamic regarding the proportion of the few who owned property over the many who did not. Renting was a normal and long-term way of life, as it still is in older cities that have distorted the supply of housing through rent control. Since then the ownership of property has become more democratically distributed (not necessarily equally) to the point that it makes little sense to avoid owning anything in the long term. Traditionally in history, towns were built building by building, lot by lot, where owners would live in a portion of the building and rent other floors to residential tenants and businesses. New Urbanism collapses the time it takes to create an organic cumulative streetscape that takes decades to build into a matter of months.

This invites criticism about the lack of authenticity from such an accelerated process, but it points more significantly to the New Urbanism's ignoring of how communities in the past were based on a structure of ownership and rental quite different from today. The slow pace of development also ensured an ecclectic mix of people and various levels of ownership from level to within one structure, often with the business at ground level being associated to residential tenants in the building. That kind of connection is lost when there are tenants with separate and unrelated purposes: a chain store inhabits the bottom level, and the apartment residents do their own thing for a few years, neither of which has any stake to what they contribute to each other the surrounding community at large. This is compounded today when developers from outside community have no interest in maintaining ownership of what they have built and would rather choose to let the tenants of the building (none of whom are owners) manage their own affairs yet do not have the financial stake in putting changes into effect.

With condominium complexes, the desired mix of diverse kinds of people and uses are discouraged to the point of championing sameness and complacent behavior, suppressing colorful characters and spontaneous activities within the condo community. At least with renters, there is no pervasive pressure to conform to the strictures of a condo board, and a certain amount of freedom is tolerated from unit to unit. The only drawback there, is that while a diverse population is present, no one within it can make much of a ong-term impact in the establishment of a solid community. Condo owners can in this latter respect, but their predisposition towards oppressive rule making and discipline only leads to one-dimensional communities that prefer carefully staging an appearance of an authentic community over hosting an unpredictable and lively street theatre.