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.

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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.

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.

GCHQ

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)

 

GROPIUS’S SELF-SERVING TELEOLOGICAL DIAGRAM?

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?

Facebook Urbanism: “Death of the CyberFlaneur”

In a fascinating if somewhat deflating opinion piece in the New York Times this week (Feb. 4, 2012), “The Death of the CyberFlaneur,” (link) Evgeny Morozov makes the case that the change in the way people inhabit the virtual space of the internet is analogous to changes in the way people inhabited the physical space of the modern city. Or at least that’s what he’s suggesting by focusing on the idea of the flaneur, that emblematic figure of modernity for Walter Benjamin.

Gustave Caillebotte's "Paris Street; Rainy Day," 1877.

Morozov came across a 1998 essay which predicted that the internet would herald the advent of the “cyberflaneur,” who would stroll through this brave new digital world “brimming with playfulness, intrigue, and serendipity.” What the street was to the flaneur, the superhighway would be to the cyberflaneur.

Passage Choiseul, Paris

The flaneur aimlessly and leisurely strolled the streets (mainly of Paris, the cultural cradle of the flaneur) absorbing the sites, sounds, and people of the city. He had no goal nor destination; quite the contrary. The art of the flaneur was to observe incognito and feast with his eyes on the sites of the modern city and its emerging consumer displays. He moved alone, in solitude, down the public and semi-public spaces of the city, in particular the new covered arcades, a kind of precursor to the department store. Heterogeneity, rich sensory experiences, disruptions and urban ambiguities were observed and accepted, even celebrated, as part of the culture of the city, and the friction of a burgeoning modern world.

Boulevard in Paris

Morozov then relates the familiar story of the birth of ‘modern’ Paris, such as the rise of the department stores, those private temples of modern consumerism, and the “Haussmanization” of Paris, in which the historic, narrow, crooked, often dark and mysterious streets were demolished to make way for the modern, wide, transparent boulevards. The openness, clarity, and linearity of the boulevards, later combined with the rise of the department store where consumer goods became categorically displayed within private temples of consumerism, made the flaneur’s vocation difficult; the pleasurable and anonymous ambiguity of the stroll was replaced by the purposeful walk within the “rationalization of city life.”

Much the same is happening on the internet now, claims Morozov, where the lack of privacy and the emphasis on social media ‘sharing’ has created a digital world far from the early promise of a kind of anonymous virtual spelunking. Rather than aimlessly “surfing the web,” following crooked sidestreets in the virtual world, users are much more likely to be tethered to their social media portals, and venture off them for specific utilitarian purposes only. He cites the rise of “apps” in support of single-purpose use, eclipsing the browser with its world of heterogeneous possibilities. In the modern city the advent of zoning regulations, which legislated the dedicated use of land upon a seemingly chaotic industrialized sprawl, was not so different. Today, are not large pods of single-use buildings, like shopping centers, corporate parks, condo developments, and single-family suburban sprawl the product of these analogous urban “apps?”

The tyranny of Facebook, that behemoth of all social networking sites, is the “tyranny of the social” according to Morozov. Facebook’s advent of “frictionless sharing” where all is shared except what you specifically prevent and keep as private, promotes a transparent world of familiarity and connection at the expense of solitude, mystery, exploration, and observation. Strolling incognito in the world of Facebook is impossible, the notion of solitary adventure is scorned upon as some kind of atavistic mannerism in the new shared world. In other words, according to Morozov in his Times piece:

“…if today’s Internet has a Baron Haussman, it is Facebook. Everything that makes cyber flanerie possible- solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking – is under assault by that company.”

The pleasure of the derive, the “psychogeographic” remapping of the city as practiced by the Situationists, could never occur with the culture of today’s Facebook youth. Facebook curates its users lives and connections, regulating what is socially acceptable (popular) and presents a consensus of tastes.

The promise of glass was the promise of utopian transparency at the advent of modern architecture, critically heralded by Bruno Taut, Paul Scheerbart, and Mies van der Rohe, amongst others. But of course this promise never ‘materialized.’ Transparency, once thought to be the architectural metaphor of a democratic and open society, has become instead the means of creating an uncurated public circus of private lives.

Still from Jacques Tati's 'Play Time' (1967)

Jacques Tati lampooned such cliches of transparent modern city life in Playtime. Almost fifty years later, perhaps Richard Meier’s elegant towers on Prospect Park or the Hudson River, are only more elegant embodiments of Tati’s circus stage set. Without the notion of veils, virtual or architectural, the Facebook generation gets the transparency of the Standard at the High Line, with the voyeuristic array of hotel bedrooms framed within its glass facade.For a generation of sexters and bloggers, that publicity is just accepted as part of Facebook’s ‘frictionless sharing’ (certainly a most apt euphemism for voyeurism!). Many architecture students today, whose social lives are transparently mediated by Facebook, default to glass buildings, regardless of use or urban context, seemingly as unaware of architectural notions of enclosure, threshold, shadows, or even the more metaphorical sense of Colin Rowe’s “virtual transparency.” I have experienced this with students at USC for years as well as other schools of architecture in Los Angeles, or in the popular architecture design blogs. A world in which all is open and on display, with little curatorial or critical understanding of transparency, in which lines between private and public are often unexplored, is undoubtedly a condition of both architectural design and online life today. Facebook architecture. Facebook urbanism.

At least below the Standard, that screen of frictionless sharing, is the High Line itself. Now that might have been one stroll the flaneur would have enjoyed, even from start to finish.

The New Los Angeles Greenway

In accepting the growing obsolescence of freeways- the clear failure of them to perform as promised, the inevitable ruins they will become (like many other historic urban infrastructures), and the social and environmental problems they have created- I am posting a conceptual (alas) project to convert Los Angeles freeways to greenways.

For the full PDF of the booklet select here: The New Los Angeles Greenway

Below is a brief manifesto and some images from the project:

 

A Greenway Manifesto: Slow Move Nation

 Los Angeles freeways promised speed and connectivity but delivered congestion and separation.  They are at their tipping point- dysfunctional and on the verge of obsolescence. Like many great cities that have reclaimed the ruins of their infrastructure it is time for Los Angeles to reclaim it’s inevitable and future ruins.

We must turn these concrete rivers of frustration and pollution into something good for everyone in the city.

 We propose to end this senseless preoccupation with speed, which has delivered anything but. We propose a Slow Move Nation, like the Slow Food Nation.  Freeways can be the source of transit and connectivity, as well as parks and valuable green space for an inexorably gray city.  Pedestrians, bikes, and light rail will now move along the old freeway routes instead of cars. Furthering the movement toward local community (and reducing the egregious transportation miles required by the global agri-industry), we are reintroducing agriculture to Los Angeles through the construction of vertical farms along the freeway.   Community gardens would also be created, and new public squares would be both transit hubs as well as farmers markets.

 We would ideally like to see the end of the reliance on private car ownership, and the increased use of shared car services (like Zip cars), and particularly transit. We envision all major boulevards and avenues having street cars that connect to the new greenways and their light-rail system. Streets of Los Angeles can be filled with the sounds of children playing and the whoosh of bicycles rather than the cacaphony of car traffic. 

We propose:

• Limit private car ownership citywide (decrease lanes, emphasize

            car sharing and taxis, reduce available parking, gas tax)

• Provide light rail and other transit on all major streets citywide.

• Trasform all streets to include bike paths and beautiful pedestrian sidewalks

• Develop freeway rights-of-way into GREENWAYS with no cars that contain:

Light Rail | Vertical Farms | Community Gardens | Bike Paths | Walking promenades | Parks | New Public Squares

 

Much like the Slow Food movement's resistance to the industrialization of food, and the failed premise that all food should be available to all people at any time, so too might there be a "Slow Move" movement. The desire to move people as quickly as possible to anywhere they want to go, the "industrialization" of transportation into the instantaneous global travel has caused similar problems of the globalization of food. Indeed a return to emphasis on the local, on balanced resources, on the affects of industrialization on community are very similar.

 

Plan showing bike access to the new GreenwaysPlan showing 1/4 mile walking radii (in orange) indicating that street cars on major boulevards are all accessible within walking distance. The street cars would connect to the new Greenway with light rail. The dashed red circle is a typical bike radius.View of Santa Monica Greenway (former 10 freeway) at Arlingtonlegend of proposed Greenway componentsView of proposed Greenway toward new light rail station

Diagram showing 1/4 mile walking radii. Street cars on major avenues are all accessible by foot. These streetcars connect to the light rail system on the new Greenways.

 

Components of proposed LA Greenway

View of proposed LA Greenway toward new transit plaza.

View of the new LA Greenway (former Santa Monica 10 Freeway)

The Death and Life of Great American Freeways: The 710 Case Study

The recent weekend closure of the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles caused worldwide media speculation of a ‘Carmageddon’, a clogging of the automotive arteries of this city so severe it would bring a cardiac arrest to the urban body.  For most of us Los Angeles residents who have little choice but to travel by private car and suffer the congested freeways, Carmegeddon had already arrived. Despite warnings by most professional planners and traffic engineers that adding more lanes of traffic will have little long-term affect on traffic, and indeed will only invite more cars onto the ribbons of concrete, Caltrans was adding another lane of traffic on the 405, at mind-numbing expense, particularly in this age of diminishing government budgets.

At this time, I received a call from a journalist who was writing a story on Caltrans’ renewed attempt to complete the 710 freeway, where there is a 21 mile gap from Pasadena south. I had written on the subject years ago for the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design and this writer had dug up my piece as part of her research. It was the first I had heard that Caltrans was still considering such action. At the time, 15 years ago, it seemed already excessive, destructive, almost atavistic in the new transportation engineering world which was beginning to understand the importance of multi-modal transportation and the limits of single-mindedly maximizing automobile speeds and volume (both in terms of actual traffic flow, but also urban life). In 1994 after the Santa Monica 10 freeway was closed due to damage from the Northridge Earthquake, I wrote in the architecture magazine Casabella an article how the forced changes to commuters routes, suddenly having to drive through neighborhoods instead of “over” them, gave new urban awareness to the city’s residents. The way we map our cities comes from the way we move through them, and therefore freeways are like the synapses of forced urban consciousness.

Since that time, there has been growing evidence as well as popular opinion against the merits of building more and more freeways to relieve congestion. In fact, the removal of freeways has been heralded across the country- like the San Francisco Embarcadero, or a highway intersection in Milwaukee, or the ‘Big Dig’ of Boston (technically not a removal, but a disappearance).  So below is my piece, which unfortunately is still relevant.

the stub of the 710 freeway, extending south from the 134 freeway. Residential areas to the west, and downtown Pasadena to the east.

 

 

 

The stub of the 710 freeway would be one of the most significant infill development sites of any California city.

The death and life of great american freeways : the 710 case study

The highway is perhaps the most ambivalently celebrated feature of the post-war American landscape. On one hand, it is heralded as a symbol of modernity and growth, and on the other criticized as a symbol of destructive urban renewal. The highway connected new suburban developments, yet often divided existing urban neighborhoods. The roadside architecture of the 50s and 60s is celebrated, while the highway malls and power centers that clutter the countryside today are decried as eyesores. Highways promised speed and freedom yet often delivered traffic and road rage.

Despite such ambivalence, the impact of the highway on the physical structure as well as the cultural landscape of post-war America is indisputable. The highway has shaped not only the physical form of the city, town, suburb, and hinterland, but has served as an enduring metaphor of mobility and freedom well-ingrained in the American psyche.

It is easy to fetishize the physical form of highways. Their magnitude and scale, the surreal ribbon of concrete flowing over the countryside or soaring majestically above the ground, and the machine-like elegance of a stacked intersection are breathtaking to behold, and impressive as sheer engineering monuments.

It is also easy to mythologize the highway and its culture. Countless books, films, art and songs have contributed to the idea of the highway as a road towards self-discovery, escape, and freedom. The highway is the focus of such diverse works as On the Road, Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, Catherine Opie’s photographs, and Jonathan Richman’s seminal song “Roadrunner.” It is no coincidence that it is America, where mobility and freedom are often synonymous, which is the most mobile industrialized country as well as the country with the greatest linear feet of drivable roads.

But if the origins of the highway promised freedom, prosperity and connectivity, the results forty years later are quite different. The construction of highways facilitated the sprawling post-war suburbanization and the associated deterioration of urban centers. Highways decimated many first-ring suburbs, and spatially and racially fragmented cities. They have enabled commuters in their veritable mobile living rooms to speed comfortably above the “surface streets,” avoiding contact with the diverse cultures and communities on the sprawling plains below.

Indeed, nowhere is this more apparent than in Los Angeles, where, like so many neurons firing through the brain’s synapses, urban consciousness is formed by repetitive automobile movements. When the 10 Freeway collapsed after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, westside commuters were suddenly forced to drive through neighborhoods. The closure of the freeway created for many a new recognition of their city. When else would the Lexus commuter have driven along Adams Boulevard with its spectacular Craftsman houses and grand eclectic churches?

Freeways are incredibly costly, and not just the $300 million per mile price tag for the pouring of concrete itself. Some of the most irreparable costs are not financial, but comprise the loss of mature neighborhoods, historic fabric, and the dislocation of thousands of people (typically those of color and minimal income– i.e. those who offer the least possibility of political resistance). Highways have also irreversibly altered the development patterns of our cities and towns, enabling the centrifugal sprawl of suburbs and edge cities. Such sprawl development has proven to be economically and environmentally unsustainable. These ex-urban areas face continuous revenue shortfalls from the costs of new infrastructure, services, and schools that such development requires. The loss of undeveloped and agricultural land, and the associated air, water, and soil pollution are significant environmental costs.

Despite the massive highway-building program, traffic has become an insurmountable problem. The idea that more freeways and more roadway lanes decrease traffic has been proven a syllogism. (As one progressive transportation engineer puts it: “Fighting traffic by adding more lanes is like fighting obesity by loosening your belt.”).

In fact, the trend in highways these years is not building them, but dismantling them. San Francisco has demolished the earthquake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway, thereby reconnecting the city to its waterfront. (Despite Oakland’s Director of Public Works’ protestation that dismantling the freeway would back traffic up all the way across the Bay Bridge and snarl Oakland’s downtown streets.) Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist is trying to take $500 million in highway funds, earmarked to repair an offramp, to instead dismantle the section of the highway and build a new neighborhood and park in its place.

Other planned freeways in Los Angeles are not being completed. The 710 Freeway was designed about three decades ago as part of a regional highway network, much of which was never built. The 2 (Glendale / Beverly Hills Freeway), for example, was planned to continue along Santa Monica Boulevard through Hollywood, West Hollywood, and Beverly Hills. Caltrans only recently gave up control of this right-of-way. In place of a freeway, the City of West Hollywood is currently redesigning the 2.8 miles of right-of-way in West Hollywood to accommodate the thriving commercial and pedestrian activity. $15 million is being spent on wider sidewalks, a median, street trees and landscape, furniture and lighting. The result will obviously be a greater contribution to the community than an eight-lane thoroughfare, and at a fraction of the cost.

Driving onto the 710 (virtually unused) stub

710 freeway stub

So why, then, is the 710 freeway still being built? Why such transportation policy atavism? An impressive array of organizations opposes the freeway, including such diverse groups as the Sierra Club, the National Taxpayers Union, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The City of El Sereno, whose historic district will be destroyed, is also opposed, as is the City of South Pasadena which will be bisected by the freeway. Yet the City of Pasadena, holding little to no public debate, passed a vote in support late at night. (Note the vast contrast of Pasadena’s midnight vote to West Hollywood’s extensive public outreach during its Rt. 2 / Santa Monica Boulevard project.) Otherwise, the only groups supporting the freeway are Cal Trans, which stands to lose a lot of federal funds if it isn’t built, and some labor unions, such as Cement/Mason Workers Union, the Southern California District Council of Carpenters, and the Southern California Contractors Association.

The freeway extension will destroy nearly 1,000 homes and 7,000 mature trees, displace thousands of people , and disrupt five historic districts. Although it may temporarily relieve regional traffic, studies show that the 710 extension will actually dramatically increase local traffic congestion.

Although the federal government has given its approval recently to the 710 freeway, the responsibility for building the freeway has been given to the MTA. The MTA, cash-strapped and suffering from the collapse of its subway construction program and the decay of its bus program, may lack the strength and perseverance to see this controversial project through. The MTA must also balance all forms of regional transportation, and a five mile, $1.4 billion project for private automobiles may seem absurd even to them. Especially considering that a range of transportation alternatives (light rail, traffic management) may be much more effective at a fraction of the cost.

It is not very reassuring that we must rely on the incompetence of government to preserve our cities. But in the absence of enlightened bureaucracies, who can provide the necessary vision? The fate of the 710, a question of land-use at a grand scale, has drawn reaction from environmental groups, community activists, as well as progressive traffic engineers, but noticeably absent is the voice of the architect.

Indeed, if the 710 plan is abandoned, the 1.5 mile stub already built in Pasadena (just south of the 134 and west of Old Pasadena) could become one of the most coveted development parcels in the region. It is adjacent to both successful commercial areas as well as the mature and historic neighborhoods, and five minutes from the San Gabriel Mountains.

With no new freeway, the 710 stub will stand as a great urban artifact. The vast gully cradling the freeway separates two distinct sides. How does one, if at all, knit together the two sides? How can the bridges be utilized? What possibilities in section does the terrain provide? Should the land remain as open space? A new district or neighborhood? How does it connect to the rest of the City? How do the remnants of the freeway stub integrate into the future design of the site?

Just as the majority of building design in the near future will be retrofits of existing buildings, the challenge at an urban level will be infill sites such as these. The 710 Freeway site could prove a case-study in how to re-use the very infrastructure responsible for so much of the destruction of the post-war city as a site of reclamation and rebuilding.