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

Fat-tastic! Can Small Thinking Solve Our Super-Sized Problems?

According to a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — more commonly known for crunching global budget and employment numbers  — the United States is on track to be 75% obese by 2020.

3 out of every 4. And if you check with researchers at Johns Hopkins University, they’ll tell you to expect 86% by 2030. Continue Reading

Sustainability’s Triple Bottom Line: Tool for Commit-a-Phobes?

As a recovering journalist, I’m working hard to suppress old impulses. But habits of a couple decades are hard to shake. Which is why I’m struggling with familiar twitches of cynicism when it comes to “sustainability.”

We’ve reached a point where just about everybody is laying claim to a sustainability strategy, whether we’re talking mining companies blowing up mountaintops or guys selling eight-mile-per-gallon SUVs. Let’s give them this: They have a point, provided sustainability goals are tied to the desire to keep on doing whatever you’re doing in perpetuity. Continue Reading

The Suburbs: Arcade Fire, Childhood Memory, and the Future of Growth

I’m in my 40s. I grew up in the suburbs. It was awesome. And then it wasn’t.

Never before and, perhaps, never again will there be as efficient and reliable a machine for manufacturing idealized childhood memories. The suburbs of the 60s and 70s, maybe even the 80s, were like some sort of paradise. Continue Reading

Brave New Codes Reach Tipping Point: When, Where, Why?

A year ago, Apple’s sales of its iPhone and iPod Touch eclipsed 40 million units, confirming their potential to fundamentally retool our future opportunities and patterns of daily life.

Today, a year later, form-based codes hit a similar milestone, with similar implications, as over 330 cities and towns around the worldrepresenting over 40 million people — have embraced the idea of form-based coding as an alternative to the sprawl-inducing zoning models of the past century.

We’ve hit the tipping point. Welcome to the other side. Continue Reading

18th New Urbanist Congress: Best Ever?

What’s constitutes “best ever” depends on the takeaways, right? And when it comes to conferences, we could be talking takeaways that aren’t products of the event itself. Like maybe you got a job or connected with a soul mate. Let’s call that the upside of unintended consequences. Continue Reading

Zoning: No Longer Just for Nerds

Remember when you could empty a room by trying to work zoning philosophy into a conversation? Okay, you can still do that in most places. But the coolness quotient is on the rise, we swear.

Consider the adoption late last year of a form-based code in Miami, surely one of the most exotic political environments in North America. Very high hipness factor. Continue Reading

Innovation on the Road to Oblivion?

Context is everything.

The New York Times reports with unease that the FDA has approved statin drug Crestor’s use in a preventive capacity for those not currently diagnosed with cholesterol problems.

The degree to which this represents innovation in medicine is a topic to be debated elsewhere. What matters to me is that such use of pharmaceuticals is indicative of something larger. Something fundamental to our future: An ever-growing commitment to the path we’re presently on. Continue Reading

Heaven Help Us: Ambitious Project Both Reaffirms, Tests Faith in Sustainable Future

I was a post-Vatican II, suburban Catholic.

For anyone of shared experience, that typically meant attending a church that was designed and built to serve the rapidly growing, happy motoring suburban leisure class. Equal parts woody earth tones and ample parking, it was a transient testament to our nation’s awkward adolescence: a monolithic UFO of contemporary styling.

But it was also testament to the church’s theological tension at the time, which manifested itself in doctrinal inclinations towards avoiding that which had been done before. To this day, according to architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, this unresolved traditional/modern conflict “requires a sorting out of intellectual goals and the emotional or visceral effect that a space can have on a people’s spiritual stance.”

I was just a kid at the time but, even then, the less-than-subtle disconnect between these newfangled buildings and the deep rituals taking place inside of them did not go unnoticed.

Theological considerations aside, that’s just poor branding.

But now that the sheen of the suburban promise has faded and our recent history’s tendency towards folly is increasingly revealed, the timing is perfect for some signs of hope.

One such sign arrived today, with this morning’s Atlanta Journal Constitution. But it’s a mixed blessing.

Mary Our Queen Catholic Church, a growing, 15 year old suburban congregation in Norcross, Georgia, is looking for a permanent home. But rather than build something new, they’re looking to purchase a spectacular, historic Buffalo, New York, basilica and move it nearly a thousand miles south, piece by piece, to be reassembled.

The church calls it “preservation through relocation” and claims new construction of equal quality would cost more than twice as much. The whole project seems like a solid exercise in pragmatic preservation, nicely aligned with what Original Green architect Steve Mouzon describes as the key attributes of truly sustainable buildings: lovability, durability, flexibility and frugality.

Such permanence, history and reinforced cultural identity are touchstones of common sense sustainability. But don’t rejoice just yet. There’s at least one devil in the details.

Take a look at the church in its present location:

           

Now consider this rendering of its future home:

Conspicuous in the new plans is the apparent absence of a surrounding neighborhood. Thus, a structure that once stood as the spiritual heart of a physical community will now be repackaged as the idealized temple on a hill.

Not that I have anything against grandeur or symbolism. Each has their place. But the church suggests this rebirth will add centuries to the building’s life. Assuming that’s true, what are the ramifications when the building is embedded in a physical context that many believe has increasingly diminished prospects?

Or, as Mouzon puts it, “Only after a place has been made sustainable does it make sense to discuss sustainable buildings.”

That’s not outside the parish’s reach. It simply depends on their vision. If their goal is to remain a relevant spiritual hub over decades (if not centuries), they may want to broaden their approach to reflect the fact that their days as an auto-dependent destination may be numbered.

Could the church transcend its sprawl-intensive landscape to once again, as circumstances change, serve as the heart of a vibrant physical community? Maybe yes. Gwinnett County, where the church is located, has been the site of some intriguing suburban mall retrofit proposals and, on an even more related note, Grenfell Architecture has spelled out a great proposal for transitioning a sprawling, suburban lot to a denser, transit-friendly urban neighborhood, developed over time by a church that would sit at its center.

It all goes to show just how fractured the whole conversation is. In no way discounting the church’s efforts, they’re just one more example of how far we’ve yet to go. If only there were some resource that put all the issues – transportation, land use, environmental and historic preservation, energy depletion, community sustainability, cultural identity, agriculture, and more – on the same page so individual efforts could better plug into a more cohesive big picture.

We could call it the Good Book.

–Scott Doyon

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