Autonomous Cars, Uber, and Future Urban Form

Broadacre City : Frank Lloyd Wright Wright: The car allows urban scale to scale horizontally

Broadacre City by Frank Lloyd Wright Wright: The car allows the city to decentralize and scale horizontally

The advent of autonomous cars will undoubtedly have an impact on the shape and organization of cities almost as great as the introduction of the car itself.  The ascendancy of the car and the single-occupancy vehicle as the primary transportation system created new forms of urban space.  Replacing traditional means of moving though cities, like walking, streetcars, and subways, the car emerged at the same time as the advent of modern urbanism. It was a deadly combination that created new vast scales of urban space that slowly eroded the traditional city, creating spaces more sympathetic to automobiles than human habitation.

The role of technology, especially transportation technology, in the way we build and live in cities is undeniable.  It can exist in pragmatic service to a city’s residents, and to can point to new visions of our settlement patterns. But technology can just as easily be misunderstood as a fetishized panacea, creating false hopes, simplistic and hyperbolized schemes, and real problems.  The car is such an example. Although tamed like so many docile ants in the renderings of Le Corbusier, or celebrated as a vehicle (pun intended) of democratic futurism by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, the car has, on the whole, been an instrument of the city’s destruction.

City of Three Million, plan by Le Corbusier. Cars are tamed through urban infrastructure with an unrealistically benign effect

City of Three Million, plan by Le Corbusier. Cars are tamed through urban infrastructure with an unrealistically benign effect

Many cities around the world have been looking for ways to tame the car, either through legislation, such as congestion tariff’s in the center city (as in London), or closing down traffic lanes (like in New York City).  The rebalancing of multi-modal streets that don’t prioritize just cars, but also bikes and pedestrians, has been the goal of surprisingly successful Complete Streets movement.  The introduction of ‘shared parking’ districts, and the relaxing of parking requirements in general, have helped reduce the amount of pavement dedicated to unused, stationary cars.

Of course the social costs of the car-oriented sprawl landscape have been well documented, and millennials, who suffered many years of carpooling as kids, are currently a primary force in the resurgence of urban living, relying on waking, transit, and, of course, Uber.

The car permitted a new kind of low-density urban form, let’s call it sprawl, that engulfed vast quantities of previously undeveloped open and agricultural space.  This form of urbanism, mostly associated with the suburb, was also introduced into existing traditional cities, typically with disastrous consequences. Large swaths of traditional cities were opened up to multi-lane roadways, parking garages, and vast expanses of pavement for parking.

Parking at new retail development in Hudson Valley, NY

Parking at new retail development in Hudson Valley, NY

Vast areas of pavement devoted to parking in American cities

Vast areas of pavement devoted to parking in American cities




Could autonomous cars alter this and create opportunities for reimagining our cities for the future? It certainly seems a reasonable expectation especially combine with car sharing services like Uber and Lyft. While the simple substitution of driven cars with driverless cars would have less of an impact on cities, it’s the combination of ride-sharing apps with autonomous cars that has the greatest possible effects on how we move through cities.

The primary change would be a vast decrease in the amount of land devoted to parking. No longer would residents have to park their car while shopping, working, etc. The amount of cars per person would drop drastically with shared car services, with some estimating there would be 1/5 the number of cars on the streets as we currently have. (MIT Citylab)

The severe parking requirements, which created so many buildings isolated in seas of pavement, or pushed back commercial buildings hundreds of feet from the streets, would be scaled back.  More important than the parking of temporarily unused cars would be the emphasis on drop-off/ pick-up places, which themselves could be a kind of urban space, a threshold between the urban and architectural. Even without Uber, a privately owned self-driving car might be imagined to drop off it’s passenger/owner, then drive itself to a kind of vehicular holding area until needed again.

What is unknown is how the Uber-autonomous car fleet would effect transit. While such cars would undoubtedly reduce parking demand, there still would be a great number of vehicles on the street, still demanding wide lanes of pavement that cut through our urban areas. The Uber autonomous vehicle, while dramatically altering the urban landscape, will not be a solution to urban mobility by itself unless it is part of a larger balance with transit and other forms of movement. Bicycles and walking still seem the best option for sustainable local circulation- ironically the most old-fashioned and least technological of any futuristic scenario of urban mobility.

For urbanists interested in the form of the city, the reuse of the spaces currently devoted to parking lots and structures seems like the most challenging, yet also promising, problem.  If all those acres of pavement were to suddenly become developable parcels, this would mean a transformation of many of our downtowns, suburbs, and perhaps (optimistically) a return to streets as public spaces and not just vehicular thoroughfares.


Featured Plan: O.M. Ungers’ Roosevelt Island Proposal

om ungers roosevelt island axo 1975

O.M. Ungers’ competition entry for Roosevelt Island housing (1975) reflects an attempt in the 70’s to address the crisis of the city, more specifically the failure of modern architecture (from CIAM through even Team X) to address the urban condition.  Like others in the 70’s, Ungers resorts to a morphological strategy to reconnect the city to architecture.  His proposal, like early OMA schemes, relies on a deliberately generic distillation of form based on typology. His chart of typologies reflects the tension between individual buildings and a unified plan, between a “city within a city” and a city connected morphologically to it’s place.  The grid here serves both as a conceptual, euclidian base for the generation of building types, and of course a specific reference to the Manhattan grid. The rectilinear form and geometric layout serve typological abstraction made concrete, and writ large. (In many ways this is a precursor to the OMA projects of ‘bigness’ just as much as it is a subtle integration of urban form at the smaller scale of the street, block, and open space network.) These housing typologies emerged from his research of the site and its context, yet are abstracted, edited, recombined, reformulated and then distributed as part of the urban system.



Featured Plan: Baldwin Hills Village, Los Angeles

Baldwin Hills Village, Clarence Stein, 1941. The superblock is clearly shown here.

Baldwin Hills Village, Clarence Stein, 1941. The superblock is clearly shown here.

In 1941, the modernist housing spirit of some of the east coast experiments reached a maturity in Los Angeles. Baldwin Hills Village (now called the Village Green) was designed by Clarence Stein, urban planner of Sunnyside Gardens in New York and Radburn, New Jersey.

The plan continued the idea of the “superblock” first experimented with in Sunnyside and then developed to a fuller extent at Radburn. The cars were kept to the perimeter, and the interior was a separate pedestrian environment. The 80 acre site contains 627 units of housing and some shared building program, with a prodigious amount of green space.

The open green space is divided into three main “greens”, the central one being the largest. Off of each green are a collection of smaller courtyards formed by the buildings- long siedlung style bars.  The bar buildings are designed so that, while the ‘front’ face onto these courtyards and greens, the backs mask the parking court.

Partial Plan of Baldwin Hills Village showing how cars are accessed from the periphery and kept invisible from the interior greens and gardens.

Partial Plan of Baldwin Hills Village showing how cars are accessed from the periphery and kept invisible from the interior greens and gardens.

Parking is in courts, accessed from the periphery.

Parking is in courts, accessed from the periphery.

The result of the superblock, with total separation of pedestrian and car, is prodigious interior space that feels more like a college campus than an urban housing project.

Baldwin Hills Village, 1941, Clarence Stein: View of the main green

Baldwin Hills Village, 1941, Clarence Stein: View of the main green


Baldwin Hills Village, Stein, 1941. Buildings by Reginald Johnson, Robert Alexander and others.

Baldwin Hills Village, Stein, 1941. Buildings by Reginald Johnson, Robert Alexander and othersFrom the aerial one can clearly see the scale of the project compared to the scale of the city streets. The superblock ultimately proved to not be an enduring urban type. It was an early modernist experiment for dealing with the cary, and perhaps a bold one for the city most associated with the automobile, Los Angeles.

Baldwin Hills Village, Clarence Stein, 1941

Baldwin Hills Village, Clarence Stein, 1941

The earliest experiments with the concept by Clarence Stein seemed more appropriately scaled, and more urban, such as in Sunnyside Gardens in New York (1924):

Plan of Stein's Sunnyside Gardens, 1924

Plan of Stein’s Sunnyside Gardens, 1924

But Radburn, as brilliant as it was, pointed more to a suburban model and one that led to decades of anti-urban settlement patterns found particularly in the ex-urbs of America. Nevertheless, the search for appropriate forms of density continued and still remains today a relevant and unsolved urban and architectural problem.

Radburn, NJ site plan. Clarence Stein, 1928. Two superblocks are clearly seen in this plan

Radburn, NJ site plan. Clarence Stein, 1928. Two superblocks are clearly seen in this plan


Paradise Planned: A Review

forest hills aerial

Forest Hills, New York

paradise-plannedThe new book, Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City, by Robert A.M. Stern, David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove cannot be taken lightly in any way.  Weighing in at 1,003 pages, with over 3,000 illustrations, it is a largely successful and inspiring attempt of an encyclopedic history of the “garden city.”

The idea of the garden city can mostly be credited to Ebenezer Howard, who popularized the concept as a means of confronting the new deleterious urban realities of late 19th century industrial England- overcrowding, pollution, disease, and relentless, expediently developed tenements that gave the workers little access to nature or civic space.

Howard is certainly given his due in the book, as well as the most prolific and persuasive of his follower, Raymond Unwin (Hampstead, Letchworth, etc.) . But the authors set the stage for the garden city movement first in the origins of the suburb, in particular Regent’s Development in London (1811-1832), and in cross-Atlantic incarnations like Llewelln Park in New Jersey (1853) or Olmstead’s Riverside (1869).

Olmstead's Plan of Riverside

Olmstead’s Plan of Riverside, 1869

Alexander Jackson Davis' Llewelyn Park, New Jersey (1857)

Alexander Jackson Davis’ Llewelyn Park, New Jersey (1857)















The idea of the garden city in its most didactic and popular form really begins with Howard and his book Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1898).  Whereas much of the history of suburbia, particularly the American incarnation, was based on a retreat from the city, and a conservative and moralistic view of domesticity, Howard’s intention was to combine the best of the city with the best of country.

Partial Plan Diagram  of Howard's Garden City showing zoning relationships of uses.

Partial Plan Diagram of Howard’s Garden City showing zoning relationships of uses.

Raymond Unwin was the most persuasive and influential designer of garden cities, in particular Hampstead and Letchworth. This history is well known and documented; Unwin’s garden cities have probably been more influential on contemporaneous urban planners than any other planner/architect.  As expected, there are numerous pages devoted to Unwin’s garden city projects.

plan hampstead

Plan of Hampstead, by Raymond Unwin, 1907

Study of Hampstead street by Unwin showing variations of building groupings and placement

Study of Hampstead street by Unwin showing variations of building groupings and placement

Examples of different effects from variations in building groupings and placement by Unwin at Hampstead

Examples of different effects from variations in building groupings and placement by Unwin at Hampstead

But what is exciting in Paradise Planned is the sheer quantity of projects included, many quite obscure.  These projects,  presented in drawings, plans, and photographs, span the globe, categorized by place, scale, and chronology. This has the effect of showing the disseminating power of these ideas, instead of the typical presentation of a handful of distilled precedents. Paradise Planned moves beyond the prototypes to create a rich survey of towns, suburbs, and what might be called ‘infill developments’ today.

With over 3,000 illustrations, the variety of design applications of the garden city idea can be understood in all its subtleties and variations.  From such a vast survey, one can understand the different ways these ideas can be embodied, and for different purposes.

Venice, Florida plan by John Nolen

Venice, Florida plan by John Nolen

Cite Industrielle by Tony Garnier

Cite Industrielle by Tony Garnier

Alfredshof, by Robert Schmohl, Essen, Germany, 1893

Alfredshof, by Robert Schmohl, Essen, Germany, 1893. This was typical of much of the German plans using perimeter block buildings to both define streets as well as inner courtyards. In this case there were grand picturesque axes which punctured the blocks, tying them together at a larger scale.


Paradise Planned shows different applications of these garden city ideals.  For example, there is a chapter on Company Town, a chapter on Garden Cities, on Garden Suburbs, on projects in Europe, the Americas, and on “the rest of the world”.  While some of these projects could only loosely be identified as garden cities in the strictest sense, they all share an attempt to balance the built environment with nature, a systematic and carefully designed way of distributing mostly mutlti-family housing throughout a development, a respect for the street, the framing of public open spaces, the understanding of the urban block and its potential, an appreciation of the multiple housing typologies, and the belief that these places need to serve communities and support cultural, commercial, and civic needs.

Het-Gooi, by S.R. DeMiranda; Netherlands, 1929

Het-Gooi, by S.R. DeMiranda; Netherlands, 1929. The circular plan with it’s absolute geometry is indicative of many of the utopian plans that inspired garden cities.

Leobschutz, by Ernst May,1923

Leobschutz, by Ernst May, 1923. This urban plan of a siedlung is markedly different than the more abstract, rational, systemized zellenbau housing of May in later years.

Cite Jardin de Drancy, France, by Bassompierre-Sewrin and de Rutté, 1921-31. Detail of street; only thee standardized house types were used, and grouped together in as many as rows of six.

Cite Jardin de Drancy, France, by Bassompierre-Sewrin and de Rutté, 1921-31. Detail of street; only thee standardized house types were used, and grouped together in as many as rows of six.

The examples in Paradise Planned have served to inspire some recent urban planners and architects (most notably New Urbanists), but perhaps, and this is something I fervently believe, they can inspire a more contemporary adaptation of these principles.  The post-war paradigm has created an onslaught of suburban sprawl and low-density, energy-dependent development in the age of dwindling natural resources and climate change. This situation is at least as precarious a way of living as that of the industrial cities Howard and Unwin inveighed against. This book will hopefully inspire architects and planners to think in a balanced and progressive way how to tackle these formidable issues.  The numerous precedents in Paradise Planned are invaluable to study, and for this reason should be on every architect’s bookshelf.


Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City, by Robert A.M. Stern, David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove (Monacelli Press: 2013)



Seeing Through the Facade

Facade of the Trutec Building by Barkow Leibinger, Seoul, Korean

Facade of the Trutec Building by Barkow Leibinger, Seoul, Korean

There is a growing enthusiasm in both the profession and the academy (which rarely has a confluence of interest) in FACADES.  Variably called building skins or envelopes, but often as in the ongoing AIA / Arch Newspaper conferences, ‘facades.’ facade tectonics Perhaps there is an intended irony using such an old-fashioned term for such new-fangled technological experimentation, but over all I suspect the earnestness of the endeavor reflects the earnestness of the use of the term.

As exciting as this field of facade studies is to the profession and academy, I feel there are two problematic issues with this rediscovery and emphasis on the facade that need to be discussed. Both of these issues reveal the utter lack of urban emphasis in the architectural profession.

For the most part, these contemporary facade studies are technological experiments with sustainability, with the ability of new curtainwall systems to maintain solar control over a building, to allow passive cooling or heating through new technologies of materials or automatic adjustments through computer sensors or inherent smart material properties. The field (if it can be called that) of facade tectonics is devoted to how these curtain walls are constructed, attached to the building, and most importantly, ‘perform.’ The performance of a facade relates to the particular goals of sustainability set up by the designers. The work on facades can be, not surprisingly, fetishistic, and often complex algorithms of parametric data create fanciful geometries of faceted building skin.

1. The first problematic issue is the misuse of the term itself, the misappropriation of the architecturally historical concept of ‘facade.’

The facade of Santa Maria Novella by Alberti, 1470

The facade of Santa Maria Novella by Alberti, 1470

rucellai image

Facade of Palazzo Rucellai by Alberti, one of the first examples of a Renaissance facade which used orders in architecture in studied proportions and hierarchy. Florence 1446

Prior to modernism, for hundreds of years, facades were simply the “face” of a building. This face was a separately designed architectural feature. Its primary role was helping the building “face” the street, or the city. For this reason, it was the most urban part of a building, and, together with the facades of other buildings, created the identity of the street and public spaces. The faces “spoke” to each other in a virtual dialogue. I would argue that facades were therefore the intermediary between buildings and the traditional city, between private and public space. The facade occupied a space shared by both the building and the city. This sliver of architectural space, maybe a few feet wide, was an architecture unto itself, and many treatises and explorations of this space were created as part of larger architectural discourses.

Architects strove to find harmony, balance, proportion, and rhythm in not just the elements of their building facades, but in each facade’s contribution to overall street composition. Buildings were part of a larger ensemble of public space.  Together the buildings formed an urban street facade in an analogous way that the pieces of the building frontage formed the composition of an architectural facade. Often this facade “spoke” to the city as to the program within. A bank facade and a market facade were often, conventionally, different, each conveying meaning.

None of this emphasis on the “face” of the building, or a semiotic reading of buildings as conveyers of cultural meaning, are present in the new use of the word ‘facade.’  Obviously modernism moved us beyond a point where historical styles could be meaningfully appropriated, and the shallow pretense of historical style in Post-Modernism showed the futility of such attempts. But modernism also focused on ‘elevations’ instead of facades. Buildings exteriors were seen as the result of internal forces of spatial design and programatic needs. Buildings were considered more as sculptures in the round with little regard to the need to reflect site, street or urban conditions, much less any notion of frontality. One particular side of a building was rarely emphasized over another. This history is well known and need not be repeated here.

facades panelization studies of a large urban stadium, Yazdani Studios

2. The second problem for architecture reflected in the current emphasis on facades is that it can’t help but be understood as an architectural retreat.  It is well lamented by architects that they feel further and further removed from a meaningful role in creating today’s built environment.  Whole new communities (of mostly sprawl) are designed by builders and civil engineers without input from architects. When architects do design buildings, the general parameters of size and disposition are often dictated by zoning and parking requirements as well as owner demands. Contractually, the architect’s role is increasingly defined as a manager of information rather than as an author of design.  In many ways architects have brought on this growing irrelevance themselves, particularly since the hubris of much late modernism and urban renewal.

So if architects certainly no longer build cities or even places within cities (as many did of course- see Berlage, Wagner, Stein, Saarinen, and countless others), and infrequently design buildings themselves, what is left?  Why, facades of course! The focus on building skins, while certainly interesting and necessary, has become a sliver of fetishized architectural space defended by architects as their last bastion of relevance. Hence the websites, consultancies, courses, books, blogs, and conferences dedicated to this shallow space of architectural topicality.

Ken Yeung tower as part of facade conference poster

Ken Yeung tower as part of facade conference poster

Asplund's Court Building extension, Gothenberg, Sweden: an early modern contextual facade.

Asplund’s Court Building extension, Gothenberg, Sweden: an early modern contextual facade.

Rafael Moneo's Murcia City Hall, 1998 shows an abstract facade designed to dialogue with the other historic facades of this civic space

Rafael Moneo’s Murcia City Hall, 1998 shows an abstract facade designed to dialogue with the other historic facades of this civic space

Jean Nouvel's Cartier Foundation in Paris has a transparent glass facade which maintains the street wall, continues some of the adjacent building's datum, and masks, albeit transparently (virtually) the complexity of the programed spaces beyond.

Jean Nouvel’s Cartier Foundation in Paris has a transparent glass facade which maintains the street wall, continues some of the adjacent building’s datum, and masks, albeit transparently (virtually) the complexity of the programed spaces beyond.

Herzog and deMeuron's Prada Store, Tokyo- an object wrapped in a beautiful skin with intensive facade tectonic design

Herzog and deMeuron’s Prada Store, Tokyo- an object wrapped in a beautiful skin with intensive facade tectonic design

Soumaya Museo, Mexico City. This is a building defined by it's skin and the abstract shape the skins forms. It needs an anti-urban setting, a generous amount of space, to exist in this form.

Soumaya Museo, Mexico City. This is a building defined by it’s skin and the abstract shape the skins forms. It needs an anti-urban setting, a generous amount of space, to exist in this form.


Featured Plan: Smithsons’ Golden Lane Project (1952)

Sketch of Golden Lane network


Alison and Peter Smithson’s competition entry for the reconstruction of post-war ruins in The City of London was a bold, brash vision of new urban form. The plan intended to bring together high densities of people in a way that created “an infinitely richer and more satisfactory way of living in cities.” To achieve this, they proposed a series of “streets in the air” which connected clusters of flats accessible above and below each mid-air street. They believed that concentrating pedestrian circulation would create community and bring a kind of humanity back to some of the more bombastic and monumental CIAM modernist housing projects. Separating the pedestrian streets from the ground was also their response to the growing ubiquity of the automobile. Although the slab housing forms of the Golden Lane Project owed much to Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation and its internal street, the more radical part of the project was the de-emphasis of the building as a discreet unit of urbanization, and instead the creation of a network of continuous buildings arranged in a kind of cellular or synaptic pattern.  Such a network would respond to local needs and topography, and would exist as another layer of urbanism upon the existing city fabric.  This clustered and networked approach, a flexible system, was a rejection of the imposition of the a priori high modernist grid. The project was presented at CIAM IX. The Smithsons would, of course, become founders and influential members of Team X in the upcoming years.

Smithsons’ Golden Lane project, 1952- network of housing and streets in the air

Although the emphasis on community, flexibility, adaptability, and pedestrians is laudable, the decoupling of residential life from the streets ultimately has proven disastrous for cities. And even for the Smithsons: their Robin Hood Gardens project, essentially their built version of the Golden Lane Project twenty years later, is currently scheduled for demolition in London. Perhaps it is a matter of urban scale, as well as the dismissal of the urban block as the basic element of cities. The success of Michiel Brinckmann’s Spangenblok in Rotterdam (1920’s), for example, which also employed pedestrian streets in the air, by contrast linked buildings which had a clear disposition within the city block. That assemblage of buildings had a relationship to the traditional street, and created open, semi-private space within the perimeter block massing. The interior streets in the air were therefore secondary and supportive to the “real” streets of the city, and were visibly connected to the pedestrian spaces below within the block.

“Street in the air” of the Smithsons’ Golden Lane project (1952)

Collage view of Smithsons’ Golden Lane project

Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens, with ‘streets in the air’ first developed in their Golden Lane project. The building is currently scheduled for demolition after a fierce preservation debate.


M. Brinkmann’s Spagen Housing, Rotterdam, 1920’s







Superblocks of Consumption Past and Future: le Bon Marche & Idiocracy

I came across this historic rendering of the original Le Bon Marche recently. It got me thinking, and I grabbed a copy of one of my favorite movies Idiocracy (full disclosure: my wife produced it). Le Bon Marche reminded me of a view of Costco in the film, which is a dystopian look at America 500 years in the future.

Rendering of the Le Bon Marche, first department store in Paris (designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1868)

View of Costco, year 2505, from the movie “Idiocracy” by Mike Judge

It seems that this Costco of year 2505, sitting amongst the teeming slums of a decaying post-urban America, can be seen as a pale echo, a pathetic descendent, of the magnificent Le Bon Marche, the first department store in Paris, designed by Gustave Eiffel.

Both occupy expansive sites of multiple city blocks (36 acres in the case of Le Bon Marche, and almost infinite in Idiocracy) and both are intended to stand out as the latest incarnation of consumerism.  With the construction of Le Bon Marche, it was the first time the city (and its consumer) were brought into commensurate urban-scaled spaces dedicated to shopping, with the promise of the finest fashion and foods available in Europe. In the future Costco, the decayed urban infrastructure without flows into the biggest of big box retail.  Instead of the finest fashions, one finds in this temple remnants of devolved consumerism and desire-  red sofas, useless crates of stuff piled sky high, and a franchise of El Pollo Borracho “Adult Chicken with Full Release.”

El Pollo Borracho inside the Costco of Idiocracy: “Adult Chicken”

Le Bon Marche- interior street

Costco in Idiocracy, interior ‘street’

Interior, Le Bon Marche


Costco in ‘Idiocracy’

I guess the superblock has persistence.

“The superblock, and with it the concept of the ‘designed whole,’ is a fact of the modern capitalist state. It has evolved from the representational building and had gradually superseded the system according to which small plots were designed within a metonymic set. It is not simply a new type to be added to the repertoire of the city but a type of types, whose presence is rapidly destroying the traditional city.”

 Alan Colquhoun, “The Superblock”


Facebook and Apple’s New Headquarters

A campus has traditionally always been buildings around open space. Facebook's new campus relegates landscape to the roof as well as to a perimeter buffer.

The Apple has landed.


Announcements this year that two of the largest, most (in)famous technology companies of a generation, Facebook and Apple, are building new headquarters is a chance to get a snapshot of the current role of architecture in creating bricks-and-mortar brands for high-tech digital companies fanatically concerned about their image, as well as to understand what it means now to create a “campus.” Unfortunately, on all accounts, this snapshot is a dismal revelation of how irrelevant architecture has become, how urbanism fails to enter into any present-day architectural consideration, and how the proud and storied history in America of creating campuses through hierarchical scales of interconnected buildings and landscapes, is finally extinct and merely rhetorical. Perhaps most disturbing is the absolute neglect, to the point of aggressive dismissal, of any concern for the neighborhood and surrounding city. Since it could be argued it is not a corporation’s responsibility to create value for anything other than itself, perhaps a better way of restating this rejection of urban context is that these companies are unable to see any value in an open, urban campus to the function of their company or the welfare of their employees. Nor do they see any value in contributing to their home city through the creation of a strategically placed headquarters that would have a positive catalytic effect on the area. (I remember similar arguments when the Getty chose their castle-on-a-hill site over a more urban site like the former Ambassador Hotel property in Mid-Wilshire.)

Facebook's existing campus: typically isolated "office park". Sublime islands in sprawl.

Both new headquarters are insulated, isolated, inward-looking fortresses. Both projects accept the recent trend of mistaking big buildings for urbanism, and of single massive spaces with fragmented floor plans for campuses. No matter how many bean-bagged ‘informal’ areas or ‘cafes’ are scattered throughout Facebook’s hyper-inflated space, it is not a campus, not a mixed-use place, but designed to seal off any intrusion from the outside world, or even the outside environment. Allison Arieff touches on this in her NY Times Opinionator blog, stating that in contrast to the simulated urbanism of the new isolated Facebook headquarters (which for some reason she calls New Urban-ish), Silicon Valley employees’ “most meaningful encounters occur not at work but while waiting on city streets for the now-ubiquitous corporate shuttles from San Francisco that take them south to Silicon Valley.”

Gehry’s scheme, from the few model photos recently released, creates the pretense of messy urbanism by playfully slicing and dicing a giant “warehouse”, and gratuitously altering the perimeter shape and materials to make the singular and monumental appear fragmented and contiguous. There of course is nothing wrong with doing this, and it is an architectural strategy employed through the ages (including by Gehry himself elegantly in the eighties). Yet what is hypocritical is the building’s pretense to be something that Facebook clearly doesn’t really want: an actual campus. Facebook itself, in the little it has released publicly about this project, alternates between calling the building a campus and a warehouse. Yet the two are opposite; one being a collection of buildings distributed strategically in a large space, and the other a large space enclosed in a single building. Now there are certainly interesting and provocative ways to explore a breakdown in this opposition, and what a 21st-century campus might be, but this, unfortunately, is not one of them. The idea of ‘landscape,’ one of the most important, central, and occupiable elements of a campus (whether academic or corporate) has in Gehry’s proposal been relegated to the roof as well as a careless perimeter buffer from the surrounding city.

"The largest open floor plan in the world." Is this something to brag about?

Facebook’s claims of creating a sustainable and contextual campus ring hollow on all accounts- and the building compensates by rhetorically communicating these false premises. The slicing and dicing and massing fragmentation are merely signs representing “messy and variable urban conditions”. Similarly, the roof garden I suspect is merely a sign of “sustainability;” any true sustainability, especially in terms of ventilation and daylighting, are virtually impossible to obtain in such a massive, deep, continuous single floor-plate building.

Are we lost yet? Clearly a map only a Situationist could love.

Apple’s headquarters, despite similar urban deficiencies as Facebook’s building, at least represents exactly what I imagine Apple must thinks of itself. There doesn’t seem to be any architectural hypocrisy here. The building (and company) exude a powerful, insular, technologically advanced, secretive, almost oracular aura.


It is no surprise that Apple’s headquarters resembles the ultra-secretive GCHQ headquarters in Britain, or a smoothed-out Pentagon in Washington. Still, a campus it is not. It is a massive, isolated building, geometrically so pure that is is hard to understand how this “campus” can evolve and grow; it lacks the inherent flexibility of a typical campus. It’s as if the company is freezing itself in time, in some present-perfect state, fortifying itself against not just the city, but the inevitable future forces of corporate and market transformation.



Will St.Peter greet you at the door?

And change, transformation, and evolution are what cities and campuses can accommodate best. Ultimately a campus, and a city, or any place for that matter, is not a singular ‘project,’ but a collection of buildings and spaces. Facebook and Apple can’t be faulted for attempting to control their massive undertakings as a single conceptually unified ‘project’, but it points to the current lack of value today of seeing one’s project as part of a larger fabric of making a place, and the intellectually lazy method of creating urbanism by simply creating hyper-inflated buildings. This is project-based urbanism, contained and wrapped up in a neat package, with clear boundaries and fortified envelopes. Both headquarters in their own way indicate the current fascination with controlled monolithic entities (corporate and architectural) over the often messy, subtle, complex, and heterogeneous places that may exist outside their secure perimeters.


Otto Wagner: Designing the City with Architecture

One must view the urban architectural work of Otto Wagner within the context of the redevelopment of the Ringstrasse of Vienna.  As in many European cities at the time, the old fortifications around the medieval city center of Vienna were no longer needed, and pressures for redevelopment were great. These old fortifications of the feudal era were replaced with institutions of the new bourgeois power: University, Parliament, Museums, etc.), as well as upscale blocks of housing

Ringstrasse Plan, Vienna, 1860

The new Ringstrasse development did not stitch the historic city center with the surrounding suburbs as much as permanently separate them. Rather than a series of urban spaces and connections it was essentially a linear void that circumnavigated the historic city.

Critical of this development was Camillo Sitte, the prominent urban planning theorist whose book “City Planning According to Artistic Principles” was published in 1889 and was exceedingly influential. His study of cities in this book emphasized the importance of plazas and squares, composed and enclosed spaces that served as outdoor rooms. In particular, he criticized the nineteenth-century trend of floating massive civic and institutional buildings in the middle of vast plazas. To Sitte, the plazas had to have an enclosed, human scale, and the important monuments (typically churches in the past) were not free-standing, but emerged from the surrounding fabric. Sitte advocated for an informal, picturesque composition, as well as an approach that was “artfully” choreographed.

Camillo Sitte, Study of Medieval Plazas

Sitte even proposed changes to the Ringstrasse, attempting to arrest the linearity of the new boulevard and to capture space along its length. Modernity with its vastness of scale and it’s emphasis on speed was a tragic turn of events for Sitte, one with profound emotional and cultural ramifications.

Camillo Sitte, Ringstrasse proposal, Vienna

Wagner, on the other hand, embraced the new modern city, and believed it should represent movement and efficiency. His buildings were in deference to the streets. They were not freestanding, or attached in picturesque ways as recommended by Sitte, but inserted into the urban fabric. In this way, the buildings DEFLECTED and FACILITATED movement.

Otto Wagner, War Ministry on the Ringstrasse, Vienna. His buildings were intended to facilitate the movement of the street

Wagner vested monumentality not in buildings, but the street itself, which can be seen as vast cuts through the urban fabric, most famously in his Groszstadt Plan.

Diagram of Wagner's Groszstadt

But before the Groszstadt plans, Wagner proved himself an incredibly adept sculptor of urban blocks. For his Groszstadt, the urban blocks were units of aggregation, and the open space was either the space of the street, or the residual space of blocks removed, in both cases geometrically subservient to the infinite expansion of the urban module.

Otto Wagner, Die Groszstadst, Plan (1911)

Open space created from the carving of the urban fabric. Even the landscape here is architecturalized and provides geometric definition to the open space.

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Intersections of Architecture and Urbanism in the Emerging Modern City

Otto Wagner Groszstadt

Otto Wagner, Die Groszstadt, Modular Center view (1911)

Last week I gave a lecture at Notre Dame School of Architecture on the work of Otto Wagner, H.P. Berlage, and Eliel Saarinen, and how these architects worked in the space between urban and architectural form.

At the turn of the twentieth century, roughly from 1890 to the first world war, there was a fervent and fertile dialogue amongst architects as to the appropriate nature and form of the emerging modern city.  After the European revolutions of 1848 in which the middle-classes saw their power in ascendency, and with burgeoning industrialization and the ascent of capitalism, a new kind of city was emerging.

This was a city that was growing and expanding at unprecedented levels. With it were associated urban population pressures, especially in the form of workers housing. This new economy depended on efficient movement of goods and services, so traffic engineering and street design became of paramount importance.  Architects debated the form of this city in powerful and subtle ways.  Crooked streets versus straight streets. Functional cities or artistic cities. Enclosed squares or vast monumental public spaces. Wide streets for efficient traffic or narrow streets for pedestrian comfort. Expansion of cities or judicious alterations of the existing core. The nature of housing. The nature of public monuments. The nature of urban blocks. Cities that looked to history for cultural mooring vs. cities that looked to the future with limitless optimism. Many of these issues are ones that we would recognize as still relevant today.

What is consistent about these debates amongst architects then, in the search for urban form, is the role of architecture, the importance of buildings in defining the form of cities. Different architects argued for different architectural methods, or emphases, or connections to history. But all understood that buildings were how urban space was to be defined. Making a building was making urban space.

It’s not a coincidence that the celebrated urban plans of this period were by architects. although their differences were sincere and often drastic, these architects were united in not ceding the powerful tools of architecture to make these new urban spaces.  All of them understood that the block was the basic, well, building block, of the city. Each treated the relationship of the block to the city, and the block to its buildings, in different ways, but nevertheless, the BLOCK was at the intersection of Architecture and Urbansim.

Wagner in Vienna, Berlage in Amsterdam, and Saarinen in Helsinki, were each reknown architects who understood that the practice of architecture had to be expanded to include the city. They were contemporaneous, but each indicated different futures for the city.

Otto Wagner, Die Groszstadst, Plan (1911)



Eliel Saarinen, Munkkiemi-Haaga Preliminary Plan, Helsinki (1915)


H.P. Berlage, South Amsterdam Plan (1914-1917)



Below is a diagram that Walter Gropius presented to indicate what he saw as the natural evolution of urban structure.

walter gropius urban block diagram

Walter Gropius, "From the Block to the Bar", diagram 1920

Gropius saw the reformed block (the middle diagram) as merely an intermediary step between the densely built-up blocks of the nineteenth century and the rigid north-south bars of the 1920’s. The reformed block emphasized perimeter block buildings which allowed a continuous street facade while at the same time permitting light and air to penetrate the open spaces within the block.  Now that we’ve seen the destructive effects of modern bar buildings and towers floating in undefined open space, with no relationship to streets and pubic spaces, perhaps we can reverse Gropius’ procession, or at least not see his pedagogical diagram as inevitable, but a detour.  What can we learn as architects by going back to this time just before this detour was taken, when debates about the form of the modern city were first being posed, and richly explored by architects such as Wagner, Berlage, and Saarinen?