Sunday, January 27, 2008

Dude, where's my cherubs??

A friend of mine who teaches urban design once said to me (in paraphrase):
A hundred years ago, we were a poor country, and we didn't have any of the building technology we have now — and we built glorious buildings. Now we're the richest country that ever was, we have technologies that were unimaginable even twenty years ago, and we put City Hall in a tilt-up.
By contrast, we have Adolf Loos writing in 1906 that "The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects."

And we know which way of thinking won. But if we're aiming at emotional resonance among a broad population, some degree of storytelling will be crucial. Expediency is one kind of story (and one that we can read pretty well). Crisp precision is another kind of story, if it's maintained weekly in perpetuity with that same degree of precision; so is the designer's common creed of "creativity," which can easily translate for the rest of us into "what the hell is that?"

People tie the things they see into a lifetime of things they've seen. Nothing is ever encountered fresh; instead, we read it through comparison and association with "like objects" and "context" and our own histories. We put new buildings into an ongoing story (or let those buildings amend our story, if we can figure out a way to make them fit somehow).

So what kind of stories do you want to tell?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What happens when the money goes away

Here's one of the images that haunts me.

I grew up in industrial Michigan, just about the time when the factories were closing. I remember these monstrous buildings, four blocks long and a block wide and four stories tall — surrounded by chain link fencing, with all the windows shot out, and grass growing up through the workers' parking lot.

At one time, the owners and managers and foremen at these factories had enough money to patronize businesses like the one above — the Michigan Theater in Detroit. Now there's not even enough money around to fill it as a parking lot for downtown workers.

My dad was, and my brothers are, working-class guys. It's jobs like theirs that used to support these cities. Now, retired, they complain about how all the jobs have gone to Asia (but love that they can shop at WalMart and buy the bargain barbecue grill that was made for 65 cents an hour in Indonesia). How can we build a better sense of cause-and-effect that allows us to speak of the abandonment of the Michigan Theater in the same sentence as the developer home and the six-dollar plastic resin patio chair?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Reflection of the Idea Sketch Problem

Well, you're probably back in your office today, wondering what the heck happened that a year or so worth of experience only looks like ten days on the calendar. As a way of recalling (partially) what you were up to last week, I thought I'd offer up the comments you made on my series of "What if..." statements. (Please note that all of the bullet text, even the parenthetical remarks, are drawn from the Post-It Notes.)

What if... we invited our client rep to be a regular member of our design team, instead of presenting things to them?
  • Teach them?
  • We already do and the meetings are hours long 'cause the client goes in circles.
  • Can I pick which client?
What if... we did some of our work in our clients' current office?
  • I don't like their offices.
  • We need to walk in their shoes.
  • We would learn more about them.
  • Agree.
What if... you started a mentorship program in your office?
  • For the young and young at heart.
What if... you ran for mayor?
  • I would probably lose, BUT if elected, I would invest a ton of $ into downtown redevelopment, implement 'green' programs (i.e. Chicago), privatize the school system, renovate the ugly buildings, cut through bureaucracy, and then... smile!
  • I'd be fooling myself somehow.
  • Improve public transportation so the public doesn't have to rely on personal vehicles.
  • I would like to create more housing for the homeless.
  • What if you worked WITH the mayor?
  • What if "nothing was stopping you?" (see below)
  • Okay, I'm going for it.
What if... your office had a drop-in clinic for everyday questions from passers-by?
  • I would get to make more models for our window display!
  • Both would spread a well-needed understanding.
  • Educate the public/candid view.
  • No one would come to it. (Why? Because your service stinks?)
  • It would be a long line.
  • I'd hate to be the one answering.
  • It would be one hell of a marketing tool.
What if... your future firm had a billboard on the highway? What would it say? What would it show?
  • "We listen to YOU."
  • It would have an image that created emotion. No text, except logo.
  • it would be a picture of a fantastic view that reminds you of vacation (beach), because home should be an escape.
  • "Have you had a bad building? Give us a call and we will take care of that problem for you!"
  • "You probably can't afford us, but give us a call anyway." --Architects.
What if... your program document was only language and music, with no lists or numbers?
  • "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."
  • Sounds like they are asking you to design a building that SINGS.
  • Make sure to select music that the client appreciates.
What if... nothing was stopping you?
  • There's always an excuse... thus there is nothing stopping me.
  • "Imagine what you could do, if you knew you could not fail."
  • That sense of "freedom" would be the greatest thing in the world.

Thanks for a terrific week.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Other Side of the Tracks

As a counterpoint to Duncan's description of Bedford Village, let me give you a brief history of Durham NC. It was founded in 1847 when a local dentist, Dr. Benjamin Durham, donated three acres to the railroad to build a station. The railroad allowed the town to centralize the tobacco production, and it became a farm center (and later a manufacturing center, first for cut tobacco and then for manufactured cigarettes; early in the 20th Century, 95% of the manufactured cigarettes IN THE WORLD were made in Durham).

The railroad ran more or less diagonally from upper left (NW) to lower right (SE) on your map. The area above the rail line was the City of Durham; the area below the line was unincorporated County land. As African American millworkers in cotton and tobacco started to make a little bit of money in the factories, they wanted to buy land and build houses, but couldn't afford both property and property taxes. So they bought in the unincorporated area below the tracks, and the railroad was a clear social and cultural dividing line (not unlike those in the factories, where men worked in one building and women in another, where white men and women worked on the first floors and Blacks worked on the upper floors).

As the African American community started to accumulate some capital, businesses small and large rose up to accommodate them. Parrish Street came to be known as the Black Wall Street with banks and insurance companies serving the African American middle class throughout the South , and the Black
neighborhood called Hayti (pronounced HAY-tie) was a vigorous middle-class community.

Fast-forward to the 1970s. Duke University (Durham), the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), and the North Carolina State University (Raleigh) had bought and developed a few thousand acres in the center of the 20-mile triangle between them and built a research-oriented business park called Research Triangle Park (RTP). RTP was booming, with over a hundred research-focused organizations ranging from Xerox to the US Department of Agriculture having labs there. (For those of you who know David or Amy Sedaris — they grew up in Raleigh because their father worked for Xerox in RTP.) And there was no significant highway from Durham to RTP as there was with Interstate 40 running between Chapel Hill and Raleigh. So the Durham Freeway was built... you guessed it... right through the heart of Hayti, cutting a 1.5-mile-wide swath through the most successful Black community in the Southeast. And that was the end of that.

What examples do you know of "the other side of the tracks?"

Friday, January 4, 2008

Chickens, Eggs, and Omelettes

First off, we need to consider Bickford's distinction that she draws on p. 358 between Lifestyle, Elite, and Security Zone suburbs. We've been talking so far as though all gated communities were equal, and Bickford has been pretty careful to distinguish between them.

But the larger question right now seems to be the chicken-and-egg issue: did our suburban and urban defensive forms spawn defensive attitudes, or originate from them? Her argument, surprisingly enough, is that the spaces seemed to come first. She cites a study by McKenzie on p. 359 indicating that common-interest developments were a developer tool to place more houses on less land. As greater ethnic blending took place in the cities, a great number of white residents fled for those suburbs, so that the desire for "safety" was innately tied to the housing form. From that point, though, the causality is less important — the desire to avoid "others" breeds separation which breeds avoidance which breeds separation, and the cycle amplifies.

The deeper question we'll need to face is how to break that cycle. Many of you have criticized Bickford for not proposing solutions, but she very clearly does so on pages 366-368 in her examination of regional governance rather than the proliferation of tiny jurisdictions. She believes that the research indicates local control leads toward escape as a primary way of dealing with social problems, and that tackling issues regionally or at a metropolitan scale ensures that we can't just shift problems from one neighborhood or town to another.

But you're all professional architects rather than politicians, and I doubt you're looking to change careers. So what can the designer do to break this cycle of separation, avoidance, and fear? Do you have any tools at your disposal to make social change?

Thursday, January 3, 2008

How to Read

Susan Bickford conveniently tells us her task for this article, in the bottom paragraph of the first page:
"This essay attempts to reconnect political theory to the study of cities by probing the link between built environment, public life, and democratic politics. By doing so, we can discern critical and troubling dynamics shaping contemporary democratic citizenship in this inegalitarian social context."
Having laid out the work she's taking on, she also forecasts her overall findings, in the first paragraph on page 356:
"In this essay, I argue that the architecture of our urban and suburban lives provides a hostile environment for the development of democratic imagination and participation."
Can't get much more straightforward than that. So your job is to examine the ways in which she offers evidence for that claim, how she complicates and extends that claim, and whether you believe that evidence to be a) pertinent and b) compelling.

It's a long (22 pages) and dense paper. If you find yourself struggling with really comprehending the overall form, I have a suggestion.
  1. Print a copy of the paper
  2. Take a pen and number each paragraph
  3. Open a fresh Word document
  4. Using the same paragraph numbers, summarize each paragraph into a sentence. You'll lose a lot of the complexity, but you can organize the big ideas.
  5. Study your new outline. Where does the paper change directions? Are there big thematic chunks you can identify?
One thing to keep in mind is the way she's using the words "democratic" and "democracy." She's not using the partisan Democratic, nor referring to the governmental structure of majority rule through one-person, one-vote. Rather, she's referring to equality of public access, universal freedom of speech, and other forms of civil rights that stem from the notion of equality under the law.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

And off we go...

Greetings, and welcome to your first semester in the Architectural Theory course. The basic question of this course is how we can use the practices and profession of architecture to make the world better. This, of course, means that we'll be struggling with several definitions — of "world," of "better," and of "architecture."

At noon on Wednesday, January 2nd, the first reading for the semester will be available on the Angel course site — Susan Bickford's paper "Constructing Inequality: City Spaces and the Architecture of Citizenship." Bickford, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, uses this article to explore the ways in which we seem to build exclusion and social divisions into our environments.