Redevelop this, California!

How California will redevelop its existing communities in the future is up for debate. And, it’s about time.

The role of redevelopment in shaping our built environment came to its crescendo in the halcyon days of 2005 over Kelo vs. New London. Today, Susette Kelo’s home sits as a vacant scar on business-as-usual redevelopment practices.

Continue Reading

Insane, Trains and Automobiles

The holiday season is our culture’s designated time for wishes of good cheer and contemplative New Years Resolutions for a better tomorrow. Or so I thought. Then I read this stark statement:

“Scott Walker, governor-elect of Wisconsin, who vowed to stop the train in a campaign commercial, said that the train from Milwaukee to Madison would cost too much money, take the same amount of time as driving and leave many passengers needing cars anyway to get around at both ends.”
Continue Reading

Dancing with Urban Agriculture

My lovely wife of eight years enjoys really bad television. For better or worse, last night she tricked me into watching a segment of ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ Coyly, she asked me to name the movies in which the dancing ‘star’ had ‘starred’.

Having no idea and starting my way back upstairs, I heard her mimicking quietly, “Bueller… Bueller…?

Continue Reading

Today’s “Eco-Warriors”: Giving Them Something Worth Fighting For

This week I’d like to share a few thoughts on infill and sustainability that coalesced while preparing this week for another Pecha Kucha presentation on Retrofitting Suburbia.

I’ll begin with a little background. My daughter came home from her International Baccalaureate Elementary School with a new sticker in her daily planner proclaiming her an “Eco-Warrior!” Continue Reading

Retail Redemption: Skivvies Uncovered, then Promptly Covered

A couple months ago I rambled on here about my inability to purchase a particularly critical item of men’s apparel during an extended tour of new urban projects throughout the southeast. Modesty was not my problem. Rather, despite healthy commercial activity most everywhere I went, I could find no walkable stores catering to such day-to-day basics.

Food and drink? Sure. Tchotchkes and novelties? You betcha. Skivvies? Not a chance. Continue Reading

Beaches, Booze and Briefs: A New Urban Odyssey and Retail Lament

Last week I hurriedly packed for my 10 day New Urbanism adventure in the Southeastern United States. In my rush I was only able to find and pack nine pairs of clean skivvies, but assured myself that I would be able to pick up a new pair while traveling through Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Continue Reading

You Betcha! It’s PechaKucha…

It used to be that I would claim to be too young to be cynical, but those days have long passed. The change is becoming apparent as I begin to prepare for a local PechaKucha event I’m participating in this weekend. It’s Global PechaKucha Day for Haiti to raise money and awareness for Haiti through Architecture for Humanity. It is important to keep our public awareness momentum going as the devastation in Haiti will quickly be forgotten as soon as Tiger Woods or the OctoMom tees it up once again and recaptures the attention of our “utopia of overfed clowns riding in clown cars around the plasticized cartoon outskirts of our ruined cities,” to quote James Howard Kunstler.

PechaKucha has become a national designers phenomenon in itself. The idea is that the format keeps speakers on track, short, and to the point at 20 slides x 20 seconds each. The format is now commonly used at APA, CNU and AIA conferences with great excitement. Having done a few here in San Diego and seeing more across the nation has led me to believe that it has limited effect. Andres Duany once critiqued a presentation of mine as having too many slides. He challenged me to speak for as long as possible with as few slides as possible. A picture is worth 1,000 words and a really good picture should tell a whole story. 20 pictures in 6 minutes 40 seconds is a bit excessive, but hey, it’s totally hip and cool.

PechaKucha for Haiti Reconstruction

From the national press release: In response to the catastrophic magnitude 7 earthquake that tore the country apart, the global PechaKucha family is coming together with Architecture for Humanity to lend a hand in rebuilding Haiti. The global event will stick to its now renowned presentation format: 20 images, 20 seconds – but will be taking place in 200 cities, generating 2,000 presentations and more than 200,000 spectators simultaneously. All proceeds to benefit PechaKucha for Haiti Fund, from which all proceeds go directly to Architecture for Humanity 501(c) and will be used solely to build buildings. Design work has already been paid for by donations.

The reason our local chapter of Architecture For Humanity invited me to this international event is due to my experience during the Mississippi Renewal Forum Charrette. They wanted my Hurricane Katrina experience and acerbic perspective to pepper the PechaKucha night. The lessons learned were many. A few that have resonated are:

Credit: Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co.

1) Andres Duany is right again … our teams aimed toward rebuilding too well too soon and were too empathetic with the local’s sense of loss. We wanted to rebuild their towns toward a restored beauty that hadn’t existed since Hurricane Camille and missed the step of simply inhabiting the area under healthy and safe conditions for human welfare. The recent Haitian proposals are more realistic in assessing the conditions and immediate need. The prefabricated “core house” proposed by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. encapsulates the lessons learned from the difficult Katrina Cottage experience. The easy-to-assemble, easily transferable, dignified structures are being considered as long-term housing appealing to the cultural structure of Haiti.

The handwritten caption reads: 'A camp for the homeless, after the fire of April 18, 1906. Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, Cal.' Credit: alamedainfo.com

2) As with the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, those who stayed on the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina lived in the parks and plazas that provided necessary open space to build temporary structures and re-establish life in towns and cities. Today, parks and civic spaces are seen as amenities rather than the emergency relief and lifeblood they really are. Those parks that were inhabited during rebuilding will be revered and beloved for good reason. Their parks literally saved Pass Christian, Mississippi.

3) In San Diego we will plan, codify, re-plan, re-code, re-test, and change building codes over and over again in response to earthquake events. Experts predict that over the next 30-years a 9.0 quake will hit California and kill 3,000 people. However, over that same amount of time, 10x that many people will die in California from obesity, diabetes and other health issues associated with a lack of physical exercise — but our local codes and planning will not be subjected to the earthquake-level rigor.

With that point, I am not trying to make light of the fact that our building codes allow for buildings to better survive earthquakes and only kill 3,000 rather than the 300,000 persons in Haiti. However, I am incredulous that the longer term is less emphasized in planning and coding than the one-off catastrophic event. We must plan for both short-term and long-term hazards with equal rigor.

If you’re in San Diego this weekend, our PechaKucha event will take place on February 20, 2010 at the Whistle Stop Bar, 2236 Fern Street in South Park, and will be webcast worldwide between 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. in a unique “WAVE” presentation. Know that my wonderful wife and I had our wedding reception on St. Patrick’s Day at the Whistle Stop Bar and it is a block away from my home. This reminds me of how fortunate I am, and maybe I should lighten up…

– Howard Blackson

Learning from Leon

My colleagues have quickly grown tired of my repeated references to the week I recently spent with Leon Krier while he toured Southern California to promote his new book, The Architecture of Community. The book, published by Island Press and co-edited by Dhiru Thadani and Peter Hetzel, is an updated compendium of Leon Krier’s most significant work to date. The book was included in Planetizen’s Top 10 Books published in 2009.

Leon me, when you're not strong..

Before this publication, Geoff Dyer, one of my business partners, and I had been engaged in a silly professional competition to acquire Leon’s books because it was difficult to find his many brilliant books and projects for sale in United States book stores. My rare French copy of Architecture Rationnelle put me in the lead until Leon autographed Geoff’s copy of Architecture: Choice or Fate, led with “To the very talented…”

With a stroke of Leon’s pen, Geoff now sits comfortably in the lead.

Leon came to San Diego to give a lecture on architecture and urbanism to 250 interested people in a beautiful Balboa Park theater and then to 200 excitable students and faculty at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design. Local reporters, planning directors, and political leaders heard, met and learned from Leon throughout the week. San Diego Union-Tribune and San Diego City Beat wrote about his time in the city.

After San Diego, Leon then spoke to a class at Arizona State University with Emily Talen and Nan Ellin. He then joined Stefanos Polyzoides in Pasadena to discuss architecture and urbanism at the invitation of the Mayor of Pasadena. Pasadena Star News and Pasadena blogs Inside Socal and Media Bistro covered the visit.

The lessons learned from Leon while touring the Southwest were varied, complex and meaningful. The more general themes surprised me most. For example, upon picking him up from the airport, I immediately drove Leon to the latest modernist infill project in my turn-of-the-century streetcar neighborhood. The villa savoye copy had been in Architecture Record as the local architect is well known.

Upon passing by the building slowly, I was expecting an affirmation of my disgust when Leon says–disappointingly– “It’s good.” My eyes widened and my hands gestured wildly as I explained that the fenestration was backwards, the building completely out of context, and the urbanism only existent in materials and scale. Leon agreed that all were true, but that for a modernist building it was a very good example.

The lesson being, “If you do modernism (or anything for that matter)… then do it well.” He is correct. I forget how difficult it is to get buildings and places built. He said that to build anything in today’s toxic environment (naturally and politically) was laudable and then to build it well was meaningful. So, I relaxed a little about a building I had previously wished acts of God upon and drove Leon downtown.

Driving past the single core of the city, townhouse-wrapped, Vancouver-model towers proliferate San Diego’s downtown cityscape. I explained the ugly politics that gave additional entitlement to buildings that had green roofs rather than civic spaces. I was expecting a classic Leon Krier diatribe on the lack of value Vancouver brings to the New Urbanist dialog and both the ecological and social failure of high-rise towers as a building type. Instead, he thought San Diego’s towers were somewhat playful and fun. He explained that while towers are regretful, these had an element of lightness and amusement that made them easier to live with than those being stamped across Vancouver and the east coast.

Finally, he quickly surmised that our monotonous grid must become more complex. As he had pointed out years ago in Houses, Palaces, and Cities, the grid is rural in structure with its visual terminus toward infinity. A simple ‘center’ was needed in key locations to ‘urbanize’ the neighborhoods within the monotonous grid. Due to the width of San Diego’s typical streets, 80’, a majority of the infill retrofit could occur within city right-of-way and include civic buildings.

Therefore, mostly what I learned from Leon (besides the fact that driving around was much less informative than walking) was to approach places and projects with a positive, optimistic attitude in order to work towards a better future. Why is this simple lesson meaningful? To see this man remain positive after 35 years of being vilified in our modern design world is very inspirational. While his professional lectures are polemic and absolute, his professional perspective is equally optimistic and conclusive.

The following are Leon Krier’s recent drawings of how to create more urban centers in our more rural grid:

Existing US Condition

           


           

–Howard Blackson