about Urbanism

Houston’s Buffalo Bayou: Buildings in Parks

Buffalo Bayou, Houston   (c) Slyworks Photography

Buffalo Bayou  Houston (c) Slyworks Photography

I am a big fan of parks.  My local park in Austin is Zilker Park with its famous Barton Springs Pool. There is a beautiful 1940s bathhouse at the pool, designed by Dan Driscoll, an early Texas modernist architect.  I often stage my visits to the pool at times that will require a change of clothes just so I can enjoy the huge open air changing room and the very cool outdoor showers.  This blog topic is inspired by my experiences in parks and in designing buildings specifically for parks.

Decades ago, when I had my own firm, we did the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, also in Zilker Park and located just a short distance from Barton Springs Pool.  I recently participated in a series of tours for elementary school kids who came to visit the garden.  It was amazing to watch the eye-opening reaction of the kids exploring the four-acre park and its exhibits–taking a break from their regular school routine. We had our little talk on the huge porch that comprises half the space of the building at the Umlauf.  It has been a real treat to do many tours and lectures there through the years.  It’s an incredibly lively setting, and continues to thrive.

Above and below: The Umlauf Sculpture Garden, Austin

Above and below: The Umlauf Sculpture Garden, Austin

More recently, at Page, we participated in the design of Discovery Green in Houston, and, for the last few years, we have been working on Buffalo Bayou Park, also in Houston.  This newest project, which opened in October, includes many buildings spread throughout the park.

For a park building to do its job, it’s essential to feel connected to the landscape.  The intersection between structure and nature is critically important.  At Umlauf, there is that huge aforementioned porch and lots of glass in the primary pavilion.  At Buffalo Bayou Park, we did much the same with all of the buildings, including the restaurant, the bike rental and the kayak rental, each featuring a porch all the way around providing both full shade and dappled light.   The restaurant’s dining room has a large glass wall with a focus on a big, particular tree, as well as an adjacent lake, the bayou and the surrounding tree canopies.

A second big issue is scale.  One plausible approach might be to try to make a building disappear, but I think that’s problematic.  Park buildings need to be in scale with their big, open setting, and they often need to be visible at a distance to serve their purpose.  At Buffalo Bayou Park, the buildings’ scale is large and in keeping with the grandeur of the setting.

Above and below: The Lost Lake pavilion at Buffalo Bayou   Photo (c) G. Lyon Photography

The Lost Lake at Buffalo Bayou Park Photo (c) G. Lyon Photography

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Lost Lake Visitor Center/Event Space at Buffalo Bayou Park Photo (c) G. Lyon Photography

A third challenge is designing buildings to accommodate a lot of use and abuse.  Because of the flood plain at Buffalo Bayou we needed to plan many of the structures to be under water at times and vulnerable to floating debris.  We built them from stout board-formed concrete so that when there is a water event, the building withstands it.  After a significant water-level change, the concrete can be hosed off, and the structure is good to go again.  Last spring, we had huge rains in May after the buildings were pretty much complete, and there was no harm done.

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View from The Water Works Visitor Center at Buffalo Bayou Park (c) Slyworks Photography

Places like Barton Springs Pool, Umlauf Sculpture Garden, Discovery Green and Buffalo Bayou Park are wonderful, egalitarian urban draws.  More than most places in our cities, they attract people of very diverse income levels and cultural backgrounds.  At the opening of Buffalo Bayou Park in October it was wonderful to watch a real cross section of the Houston population mingling together and enjoying a beautiful day in a beautiful spot.  Being able to be a part of making these kinds of places is as good as it gets as an architect.

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View to downtown Houston from The Water Works at Buffalo Bayou Park (c) Slyworks Photography

Page - Waterworks Houston 13Mar2016-27

The Water Works at Buffalo Bayou Park Houston (c) Slyworks Photography

 

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Thinking about Buildings in Landscape, Cultural Identity, Sustainability, Texas Architecture, Urbanism
Posted March 24, 2016

Urban Life and Walking: Pleasures in a Big City

When I travel, I love to just hang out and observe urban life – how cities support the predispositions of their residents and how city dwellers embrace their environments.  I’m happy as a clam watching how crowds behave and spying on urban pedestrian life.  Such was this case a couple of months ago when I visited Quebec City.  I kept asking myself: why is it so enjoyable to be in a place that has great street life?  Why is it so pleasant to be in an environment where people are just doing an amalgamation of everyday activities?

I was in Quebec City for a few days of business meetings and was impressed by its street life in the old part of the city.  I had been there decades ago and had fond memories of this compact little bit of urban life that had, if anything, improved through the years.

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I have a long history on the subject of street life.  When I was right out of school, I was hired by Stanford Anderson at MIT to assist in his extensive research project on the subject. We did meticulous observation, mapping and analysis in Paris and Brooklyn Heights (which were very positive examples) and in downtown Washington DC (where things were pretty much falling apart).  The research led to Stan’s remarkable book, “On Streets”.

I was 24 at the time, and was mesmerized by how societies have – for centuries – made these complex crucibles of cultural interaction we call streets.  Being in Quebec made me think about what’s happened in the 40 years since those days at MIT. In 1973 – apart from San Francisco and New York City – we had pretty much given up on street life in the U.S. and nobody wanted to hang out in the city.  Car-dominated culture, the suburbs, and TV were being regaled as creating a death knell for urban pedestrian life.

Now there is a remarkable resurgence of urbanity even in many places that are surprising—like Austin.  But I think we still have many lessons to relearn from cities that never lost their urbanity, some in North America, like Quebec City.

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One afternoon in Quebec City, I witnessed a remarkable bit of urban theater – the quick transformation of a single street in the old quarter.  In a period of 15 minutes it went from a car street with a sidewalk to a 100% pedestrian corridor with generous outdoor social settings/restaurants and no cars.   The photos here show the quick installation of planters and rails and the relocations of the pedestrian path they provoked.  With these modest interventions, what was needed as a car route during business hours became a festive pedestrian party space in the evening. It is these kinds of subtle design moves that contribute to making urban spaces that are truly successful and engaging.

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St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles and many others places are now trying to rejuvenate the kind of urban life that has been continuously present in Quebec City all along.  How did we lose it in so many North American cities?  Was it really the TV of the Marshall McLuhan era?  Curiously, we now have far more technology than McLuhan anticipated and yet more people are hanging out enjoying urban life.  Maybe it’s because we all really need to be in-person social creatures.  Even with the ease and mobility of today’s social media, people are still drawn to public places.

In the 1970’s, Charles Moore wrote an article called “You Have to Pay for the Public Life,” in which he hailed Disneyland as one of the best experiences of public life in the United States.  Moore’s piece was both humorous and biting.  Now urban life is reappearing everywhere. We need to be encouraging, celebrating and provoking more of this direction as best we can.

Street Life QC

 

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Thinking about Contemporary Practices, Cultural Identity, Life as an Architect, Urbanism
Posted January 13, 2016

Invisible Resiliency

Recently, I experienced a sort of cosmic convergence of unrelated things happening.   First, an 18-year old undergraduate student came to my office to discuss an essay he’s writing about a building of his choosing that he admires.  He chose the Dallas Fort Worth Airport (DFW).  Initially, I thought that was a dubious selection, but he explained beautifully what he admired from a lay perspective.

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He was in awe of how the airport gets tens of thousands of people into and out of the facility and deals with their associated needs every day–routing them just where they all want to go, funneling them through security, feeding and entertaining them and connecting them with their air routes.  He also understood the complexity of fueling systems, maintenance, equipping, baggage conveyance, security requirements and other infrastructure needed to support the aircraft end of the operation.

He got it that DFW is not flawless, but he found it quite phenomenal that it managed to handle all it has to deal with: baggage, food, people, planes, trucks, fuel, supplies, power, parking, police… The list goes on.

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Hearing this through the eyes of an 18 year old, I thought, “Of course, DFW is really impressive in terms of what it accomplishes.  Why aren’t we constantly more impressed when building manage these herculean tasks?”

The very next day I was at DFW for an AIA jury to select the Latrobe Prize recipient this year.  The jury convened at the airport because jurors were flying in from all over the country.  We met at the Grand Hyatt, located smack in the middle of Terminal D. You fly in, work, stay and fly out.   This is not my favorite way to travel, but I did not have any say this time.

As it turns out, the topic of this research prize is resiliency.  In response to the post-Katrina and Super-Storm Sandy world, the prize received proposals discussing how to withstand the impacts of climate change, hurricanes, floods, droughts and other calamities.  Having read all the proposals, and having focused intently on resiliency, suddenly a snowstorm hit the airport.  This mini-calamity was certainly not at the scale of a flood or hurricane, but it was an unusual weather event in an area that typically doesn’t get much snow.

DFW Airport snow storm

I was pretty blown away by how well DFW handled the challenge.  My flight, like many others, was canceled, and I was seven hours late leaving for Austin.  Many people were stranded overnight.  The airport issued cots, and I noticed all of the food operations seemed perfectly capable of serving the many more meals they were called on to deliver.   All of the myriad issues pertaining to interface with ground transportation also seemed to operate admirably.  I’m watching how civilized this all was, and it struck me: this is invisible resiliency at work.

Maybe we, as architects, have lost perspective on how fundamentally we are constantly called upon to build in resiliency–maybe not at the scale of a flood or hurricane, but certainly for an unexpected snowstorm.  It was the combination of the student making me re-examine DFW, the Latrobe Prize making me think about resiliency, and then observing snow at DFW that made it occur to me: this is something that really matters in the way we do architecture every day!

We are constantly called upon to make buildings as bullet-proof as possible—especially some particularly demanding building types like a hospital, an airport, a stadium, or a mission critical facility.  These are building types we frequently deal with in our practice at Page, and their complexity and demanding performance challenges are actually quite exhilarating to deal with as designers and as a delivery team.

Our new addition to Austin Bergstrom Airport is an excellent example.  We are adding a front-door pavilion to the airport (see images, below) where people will come in, go through security, have coffee or lunch and proceed to their gate.  The addition is above a complicated international customs floor as well as the loading dock, which handles all the moving in and out of supplies for the entire airport.  The new addition resolves a complicated puzzle, and it has to do so keeping worst-case scenarios in mind.  Without being so conscious of it, we were working hard to create the kind of invisible resiliency we have come to expect of buildings in the 21st century.

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Thinking about Building Technology, Contemporary Practices, Texas Architecture, Urbanism
Posted April 7, 2015

Good design endures in Detroit’s Lafayette Park

I love to revisit significant architectural projects over and over in their mature years to see how they are working and how people are using them.  Alvar Aalto was fond of saying he wanted his buildings to be judged by how they looked after 50 years.  I think that is a good yardstick.

I had that opportunity to do the 50+ year test recently when I spent a morning walking around Lafayette Park in Detroit, designed in 1956 by Mies van der Rohe.  I first saw this multi-block neighborhood with a large section of townhomes and three residential towers 25 years ago and was really impressed at the time because it was in impeccable shape—nicely inhabited with great ethnic diversity.  At the time, Detroit was still a relatively thriving city with several great neighborhoods in the ring around downtown where Lafayette Park is located.

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Seeing the city again now is an entirely different experience.  Many of the neighborhoods around Lafayette Park have not fared well at all; in fact, a good number have been demolished.  Others have been abandoned and boarded up.  There are some house owners still putting up a valiant effort with tended lawns and a struggle to look respectable, but the houses behind are unoccupied.   There are deep signs of struggling all around downtown, but when you go into Lafayette Park and it looks amazingly intact and healthy.

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Mies’ design followed Le Corbusier’s concept of towers in a park within a city, and clearly this notion has succeeded here.  Everything is handled remarkably well.  The parking is submerged three feet so as to minimize the awareness of cars.  They are visible for surveillance sake; just not as prominent.  There is a nice playground for kids.  All the vegetation has grown in and matured in three tiers — tall trees for deep shade, lower flowering trees for color, and ground-hugging shrubs and grasses that give a soft, lush quality to the place.  The buildings are quiet, black steel with contrasting clear anodized aluminum windows, all built to a consistent, repetitive standard throughout the development.

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Lafayette Park is a co-op neighborhood with multiple legal entities that help to maintain standards and upkeep.  While it’s not true mixed-use, there is a Mies-designed shopping center close by.  What’s particularly rewarding is to see how well everything is tended; there’s obviously a strong sense of pride among the people who live here. One of the co-ops installed new thermal pane windows several years ago to replace the original ones, but did it very carefully so as to keep the design integrity.   Views from the units are out to well-defined green spaces and maintain “eyes on the street” for most of the public realm.  The one- and two-story townhouses have relatively small rooms, but mostly are large enough to accommodate families.  Some of them have attached parking spaces, and some have shared parking.  Many have outdoor courts although most outdoor space is common, not private.

I met a guy while walking around who had lived in Lafayette Park for 16 years.  He’d been a school principal, now retired, and he talked about how great it is to live there.  It’s a stable, popular neighborhood where property values have actually increased, and it’s a place where people know their neighbors.  His unit has modest spaces, but the views outside to the gardens and to comings and goings of his neighbors are generous and beautiful.  The unit is zoned perfectly for living privately while being part of a larger community.  A small but significant example of careful functional planning: one goes downstairs to an inner hallway that connects all units where the trash is tidily stored in bins until it is removed on collection day.

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I came away from Lafayette Park with an incredibly positive impression.  Have we been too quick to condemn modern planning and urban design principles that emphasized the virtues of light, air and connection to nature?  Have we bought into the urbanism touted by Jane Jacobs to the exclusion of other equally appealing patterns?  (It is precisely those street-oriented mixed-use neighborhoods of three- to five-story brick buildings that are dying in other parts of Detroit.)  Is Lafayette Park just the sort of middle ground between hardscape urbanism and leafy, sprawling suburban neighborhoods that might achieve a genteel density that we need to be achieving today?

 

 

 

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Thinking about Buildings in Landscape, Contemporary Practices, Urbanism
Posted August 13, 2014

What does global architecture mean?

I recently traveled to Bolivia to participate in the XIII Seminario Internacional de Arquitectura, a biennial architectural conference held at the University of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.  I had spoken at the same conference fourteen years ago and, as was the case before, I really got my eyes opened about the current state of architecture in Bolivia and elsewhere in South America.  Three things particularly impressed me:

1).  We in America have a terrible misconception about many other parts of the world.  The picture portrayed in both general and architectural media seems really twisted. South America is mostly off the radar screen, although we do get a tiny glimpse occasionally. When it is portrayed, we see massive favelas or a few precious object buildings.

Both of the times I have spoken in this recurring conference in Bolivia, as well as the exposure I have had through the annual Latitudes conferences at University of Texas at Austin, have opened a window to a very sophisticated group of architects practicing in South America and to economies that are thriving and building at an impressive rate.  Talking with many of the architects in Bolivia it is clear they plowed though the 2008 economic downturn hardly missing a beat.  They are executing impressive school building programs, large neighborhoods of well-designed medium density housing and suburban planning that puts our ad hoc mish-mash in the US to shame.

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2.  I was also impressed by the huge change that has happened in Santa Cruz since 2000.  The city has boomed, and has actually developed in a fairly orderly and intentional way.  There is a beautiful central historical core that is being nicely preserved and enhanced through careful controls and guidelines.

Still following a City Beautiful plan from the early 20th century, concentric rings of neighborhoods have been developed around the core. Traffic is served by a series of radial  and ring roads that have been consistently implemented over decades.  Santa Cruz is a garden city, and it reminds me of similarly well-planned cities in Australia.

The amount of construction is amazing, with design supplied by architects from Bolivia as well as other parts of South America. Both in the older part of the city, with its central square and the main cathedral, as well as on the periphery, there is evidence of really good urban design work that is actually being implemented.

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3. The conference leaders assigned a number of architecture students from the Universidad Privada de Santa Cruz de la Sierra to take care of me, and the rest of the speakers who represented other countries in South America.  These students were incredible—bright, enthusiastic, curious and engaging.  They have tremendous pride in their region and their city and are extremely knowledgeable about both its history and its current development.

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Their university has many travel and exchange programs all over the world, so these students had been around and knew global architecture as well as they knew the local scene.  The students and  faculty leaders loaded me up with recently published books about both local and larger regional architecture in Bolivia and elsewhere in South America.   Through both the educational system and  scholarship/publications, this culture is investing in a vigorous and promising future.

In the US we talk about globalization in architecture, but the content is pretty shallow and the perspective is sadly warped.  We hear a lot about Dubai and China—especially when big name architects from Europe and America plop their latest confection there.  But we know almost nothing about rapidly developing parts of the world like South America where there are many promising things happening in our field.

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Thinking about Cultural Identity, Life as an Architect, Sustainability, Urbanism
Posted April 30, 2014

A perfect building? Quite possibly, yes.

This summer I visited Vancouver, certainly one of the most spectacular urban settings in the world.  While there, I met with Mark Reddington, partner of LMN Architects of Seattle, and Ken Cretney, chief operating officer for the Vancouver Convention Centre.  Ken came on board with the center six months before the building was finished; as such, he wasn’t the original client for the project and is now responsible for the building’s ongoing function and performance.  LMN are the architects for the Convention Centre West, the only building to win a National AIA Award for Interiors, for Architecture, and for Urban Design.  The building has also been recognized by The Committee on the Environment (COTE); by World Architecture News (both as the Most Sustainable Building in the World as well as recipient of its Effectiveness Award, and by the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

Convention Centre on Vancouver's waterfront

Convention Centre on Vancouver’s waterfront

The building interfaces beautifully with the street

The building interfaces beautifully with the street

This is a truly amazing building.  It interfaces beautifully with the street, the city, the water, and with a park that outlines Vancouver Island.  At street level, there is retail that gives a pedestrian friendly face to a building type that can be daunting. All of the typically unsightly elements associated with large convention centers (e.g., buses, trucks, parking, loading docks) are underground; thus, there reduced congestion around the building.  As I learned from Mark and Ken during our tour, there were all sorts of issues from a sustainability perspective, including marine ecology.  The solution to that problem was to create a new enriched environment for the marine life in Vancouver Harbor.  In terms of form and character, it’s substantially built with local materials, employs extensive local artwork and it absolutely celebrates daylight.  I find it extraordinary that it does all these things extremely well and never feels like one design consideration trumps or overwhelms the others. In fact, they all reinforce one another.

Ample daylight throughout the interior

Ample daylight throughout the interior

Substantial use of local materials

Substantial use of local materials

The net result is a building that makes a real difference, both to the city and to its citizens.  It is also a highly effective marketing tool.  As Ken noted, “the architecture really enhances any event held here.  Conventions are more exciting and dynamic… because of the building.”  He pointed out the main ballroom, which has a moving wall to reveal beautiful views of the harbor and the mountains beyond.  The interior is a warm, ingratiating space full of light that encourages people to stay.  In short, the building contributes to its primary purpose: having great events.  Ken added that if convention committee people see the building, almost invariably they book it.

The architecture enhances any event held here

The architecture enhances any event held here

This project is a huge economic engine and generates a lot of money for the city’s hotels, restaurants, and tax revenues.  The success of the design brings in millions of dollars to Vancouver, which now competes with the global cities for significant events.  Equally important, the building makes a visible contribution to the city’s residents who go by and engage with it every day.  It’s a source of pride and excitement; people go there just to hang out.

Twilight and crowds gather in front of the building

Twilight and crowds gather in front of the building

I genuinely love buildings like this one.  They make the life of a city and the lives of its residents better!  This is the true potential of architecture – to transform the energy, vitality and economy of a place.  The power of the building goes way beyond what you can see in a photograph and attests to just how meager an experience of image alone is to the real understanding of great architecture.

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Thinking about Building Technology, Buildings in Landscape, Cultural Identity, Sustainability, Urbanism
Posted November 7, 2013

Micro-housing’s time has come … again.

Several years ago, I visited the Weissenhof Estate, an experimental residential complex built on a hillside outside Stuttgart in 1927.  Some of the most recognizable names in 20th century architecture were contributors to the buildings and the project’s success, including Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Peter Behrens, among others.  Their goal was to provide affordable housing, something urgently needed in Germany between the wars. The units were designed to accommodate a mixture of income groups, from blue-collar workers to upper middle class.   Weissenhof has become a landmark in the development of modern architecture, but the original intent was really to address a pressing social problem.  It was an extraordinary effort – very simple and very economical.

The Weissenhof Estate, Stuttgart, Germany 1927The Weissenhof Estate, Stuttgart, Germany 1927The Weissenhof

I am speaking at a conference this month that addresses these same affordable housing issues we’re facing in America now.  I will be talking about the promising notion of micro-housing, an approach that I think has real viability.  In 1950’s America, the average house size house was 1,200 square feet; it’s more than double that today, and yet families are smaller.  We create a lot of built space today that is just not needed.   This kind of consumption wastes construction resources and is expensive.  Looking back at what the Germans accomplished in the late 1920’s, we can learn lessons from architects that were working like crazy to provide just what was really needed – lean, elegant design that was still quite amenable and comfortable.  I think we should be trying to do that again now.

Recently, Architectural Record covered a micro-housing competition in Denver. There were four winners, all published. I was dismayed by the results.  Each winning entry seemed extravagant.  The whole idea of micro-housing is to stay simple, purposeful.  The winners all proposed extensive perimeter, which means high initial construction costs and long-term higher energy bills.  Building forms were intricate and clearly complicated to build and difficult to maintain.  They were, of course, cool-looking with scaffolds and lots of meandering exterior stairs and even detachable pods that could be floated on the adjacent river.

Proposed micro-housing project, DenverProposed micro-housing project, DenverProposed micro-housing, DenverProposed micro-housing, Denver

Are we as architects really trying to solve serious problems, or are we just interested in self-indulgent play?  How can we create the most live-ability in a housing project while also being energy efficient and economical in terms of other resource consumption?  These are equally critical forces in affordability.  Could a very striking, innovative visual character emerge from a genuine investigation of real problems as it did in Stuttgart?

I’d like to laud the premise the Germans set out almost a century ago.  The units at Weissenhof are small but very nurturing places to live – even a hundred years later!  Couldn’t we make some equally great micro-units now that grow out of current needs and technologies?

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Thinking about Building Technology, Contemporary Practices, Sustainability, Urbanism
Posted July 25, 2013

What role for architects in planning future cities?

A recent article by Aaron Betsky in Architect magazine took issue with a New York Times-sponsored program called the Energy For Tomorrow Conference.  Betsky was specifically concerned that the Times had not included any “urbanists, planners, or even an architect” but did include “leading urban expert Jeremy Irons.” He queried, “What are architects when we’re thinking about the future of the designed environment… chopped liver?”  Betsky suggested several prominent architects would have been an appropriate addition, including OMA and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, among others.  While I agree we should expect some architects and urbanists at such a conference, I question some of Betsky’s suggestions.  Are the starchitects he mentioned really contributing to energy efficient, sustainable cities?

Early in his career, Rem Koolhaas of OMA advocated for density and intense urban vitality, but then seems to have decided object buildings were the thing.  He has done projects that seem remarkably anti-urban and marked his career with buildings that don’t make great cities.  The gargantuan CCTV tower in Beijing is a prime example.  That building required demolishing an entire neighborhood in order to install a prominent object.  The streetscape and pedestrian quality suffer in order to create a geometric, one-liner statement that has a crushing scale at ground level. Do snazzy object building with poor pedestrian environments around them really make a sustainable city?

The CCTV complex in Beijing

Above: The CCTV complex in Beijing

I have written before about the problems of the accumulated object buildings by starchitects in the Dallas Arts District that fail to create a good urban environment.  OMA was involved there as well with the Wyly Theatre where both the main entry and lobby (the most lively parts that might enrich an urban neighborhood) are submerged a level below the street, but easily accessed via underground parking.  Creating an auto-centric building in a downtown environment – one that is desperately trying to make real headway toward mass transit and pedestrian-friendly movement – hardly seems the sort of decision one would want to hear about in a conference dedicated to energy savings and sustainable cities.

Above and below: The Wyly Theatre in Dallas

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Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times recently slammed the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science in the same Dallas district, calling it “bullhorn urbanism.”  That’s what we, as architects, have become known for: big, loud, sexy object that are more about themselves than about making a city.

The Perrot Museum in Dallas

Above: The Perrot Museum in Dallas

Look at Dubai and dozens of huge cities across China which have received huge press in architectural circles. They are what we have touted as great successes, but they are not sustainable urban environments.  If that’s the best we can do, then we don’t deserve to be at the tables of forward-thinking conferences.

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Above: The Dubai skyline

To Betsky’s credit, he observes a little later in his piece, “Perhaps they are right.  The one bit of designed infrastructure going in up in New York right now, the Calatrava station at ground zero, is a farce…” I wonder if this is the reason they’ve left architects out of the discussion.  We have got to start talking about real issues that are important to a larger society and not just about glitzy structures.  We need architects and planners to speak up on this topic – and loudly.  We need our media to be focused on real, relevant issues the larger culture cares about.  Then we will be invited to the table when those important matters are being discussed about the future of our cities.

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Thinking about Building Technology, Contemporary Practices, Sustainability, Texas Architecture, Urbanism
Posted June 11, 2013

“Creative Invention”… Only for those with gobs of money?

A few lines in Nicholai Ouroussoff’s recent article in The New York Times about the new Parrish Art Museum particularly caught my attention: “The design is a major step down in architectural ambition.  It suggests the possibility of a worrying new development in our time of financial insecurity.  It is a creeping conservatism – and aversion to risk – that leaves little room for creative invention.”

What is creative invention, and does it take a gob of money to do it?  Does a time of financial insecurity with its concomitant tightening of budgets really leave little room for creative solutions?  I would argue that the Parrish Museum is a perfect case in point where financial constraints actually led to great creativity and provoked possibilities the architects might not have otherwise explored .

Is Ouroussoff not talking so much about creative invention, but rather a profligate desire to build the strange and exotic?  I think the previous era, in which there was a lot of money being thrown around, was not a period rich in real invention.  Instead, the years preceding 2008 produced a lot of showy display that often lacked real substance, both in architecture and in the cultures that built the buildings.

The heyday of Greek overspending is nowhere more visible than in the buildings erected for the 2004 Athens Olympics.  Today, these abandoned structures are emblematic of what happens when real problems are not solved, and when realistic long-term growth is not at the center of a project. Is that what we want to go back to? The Greeks ended up with little more than some fancy baubles, now rotting in place along with an enormous debt that is crushing the country.

Ruins of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.

Ruins of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.

Spain’s economic woes also find vivid architectural expression in what The Guardian has called, “a series of architectural white elephants, including museums and empty airports, built during the decade-long economic boom.”  One of these is the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, designed by Calatrava.  This is a collection of elaborately shaped, mostly-empty buildings that don’t do much (other than look striking). From the get-go they were hollow, shape-making architecture.  Is that the creative invention Ouroussoff yearns to return to?

Calatrava's City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia

Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia

There is something truly empty in this kind of scenographic architectural exhibitionism. It’s really not very different from what a Chinese developer is just finishing in Huizhou in southern China: a duplicate of an Austrian village, complete with cobblestone streets.  These are all just extravagant image- making—indulging the fancy of someone with more money than good sense.

In southern China, an exact duplicate of an Austrian village.

In southern China, an exact duplicate of an Austrian village.

We’ve already seen what results from a deep urge to make architecture into an object fetish rather than productive and grounded place making. I’m happy we’re not in that era of excess anymore.  I think these leaner times will actually produce better, more valuable architecture and the Parrish Art Museum is a splendid example of such.  It is, in fact, creative invention at its best.

The Parrish Art Museum, Herzog & de Meuron

The Parrish Art Museum, Herzog & de Meuron

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Thinking about Buildings in Landscape, Contemporary Practices, Cultural Identity, Urbanism
Posted February 25, 2013

Postmortem on Postmodern

I am convinced that style has very little to do with the real success of buildings.  Although we as architects spend a lot of time and energy screaming about “modernism” or “regionalism” or “post-structuralism,” in the end, design genre does not make any guarantee about design quality or the ability of a building to make a difference in its culture.

This summer I had the opportunity to see two iconic works of postmodern architecture within a couple of weeks—the town of Seaside in Florida by Duany Plater-Zyberk and the Portland Building in Oregon by Michael Graves.  Both were deemed revolutionary in their era and provoked extraordinary discussion and controversy.  They are both about 30 years old now—plenty of time to really judge their success.

I made the trek to Seaside because Marlon Blackwell, who was speaking at a conference with me in nearby Destin, commented that he had rented a cottage there with his family for a week.  I am interested in where really good designers go to make their own lives richer and more enjoyable when they have choices to make.

Seaside did not disappoint!  The little streets and lanes have a wonderful, intimate scale that makes the town operate beautifully for pedestrians.  Even on a hot summer day, the mature trees made the pathways shady and cool.  The gentle cottages hid modestly behind the trees, also happy to be in the shade.  Porches and verandas abound, and people were out on them relaxing and even offering greetings when I walked by.

The Portland Building provoked the opposite reaction.  The exterior has not weathered well and its flashy “look at me” color and patterning just drew attention to how hollow and meaningless it all seemed.  The huge, extravagant statue of Portlandia at the entry contrasted sharply with the dark, parsimonious places where people have to work inside.

It seems irresponsible to write off certain genres because of the failure of some iconic projects, and it seems equally ill advised to somehow think that working in a “cool” genre is any assurance projects will have a better chance of success.

 

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Thinking about Cultural Identity, Life as an Architect, Urbanism
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Posted September 8, 2012