Oh, I see! How inventive! You've actually stacked the boxes I am supposed to live in!

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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Is Landscape Urbanism the new New Urbanism? The RPA continues the debate

from Veritas & Venustas by John Massengale  
The winning design for Horticultural City in Xi'an China, from the AALU website
THE LATEST E-LETTER FROM THE RPA (New York's Regional Plan Association) has an interesting contribution from the RPA's Vice President for Environmental Programs called When a Park Is More Than A Park, and a Building more than a Building. He looks at Landscape Urbanism, and seems to agree that it's "the next big thing."
"Academics at the Harvard Graduate School of Design are attempting to capture these [environmental] practices under the label 'Landscape Urbanism,'" the VP writes, "and are saying it's the new 'New Urbanism' or 'Smart Growth.' As theory, it's an appreciation of city form that relies less on traditional notions of mass and density and aesthetics as it does on process." But if you study Landscape Urbanism, you discover that it was actually an aesthetic long before it found what could be called its marketing theory. The process the VP refers to is only a secondary or tertiary part of the theory, and it grows naturally from the philosophy of the aesthetic.
A little background helps explain why. New Urbanism advocates the preservation and creation of a strong public realm (in America, that usually means "streets" and "parks"). The form of NU is an update of the time-tested city, town and neighborhood, indistinguishable from what the RPA advocates in our region. That's antithetical to the philosophy of Harvard's GSD, which is ideologically (one might even say "rabidly") Modernist, and therefore opposed to the traditional form of the city. As the sustainable, walkable model of New Urbanism gained ground across the country, Harvard needed to fight back. Professors in the school came up with the theory of Landscape Urbanism to support their aesthetic, which was essentially the straight-out-of-the-box 20th century Modernism taught at Harvard since Gropius arrived there in 1937, heightened by the latest CAD drawing fashion. It favored auto-based planning over the more sustainable walkable planning of NU, preferring the model of Atlanta or Houston to New York's.
Modernism was a materialistic philosophy that substituted ideas like Form Follows Function for traditional concepts of design, which balanced function, construction and beauty. Ancient Romans called those UtilitasFirmitas and Venustas, and they were considered the three legs of all architectural and urban design until Modernism banished history and said that function equals beauty. The RPA VP seems to be at least partially agreeing when he explicitly endorses LU's sound environmental ideas and process and implicitly endorses their aesthetic. But there are three problems with that: LU's sound environmentalism is everyone's sound environmentalism; much of it has been used for centuries without determing or being mistaken for being beauty; and the LU process has little to do with making places that people enjoy. (An academic friend who slogged through the entire reader-hostile Landscape Urbanism Reader points out that people are not shown or discussed in the book.)
The details of New Urbanism come from observation of what works and what doesn't work, including the details and dimensions that produce spaces where people want to be. The details of Landscape Urbanism often come from more intellectual parts of the design process. In a famous example (because there is a limited amount of LU built so far), a leading Landscape Urbanist designing a park used the location of dead tree trunks to determine some of the fundamental geometry of the park's plan. Someday those trunks will all be gone, and the conceptual meaning of the geometry will be gone. But that is typical of the way that LU designers favor intellectual concepts over the experiential placemaking New Urbanists use, and it is consistent with the Modernist desire to generate design details from the process rather than fromverboten concepts of beauty.
Looking at the history of Modernism, we can see that form rarely follows function.* And the form of auto-dependent Modernism is simultaneously environmentally unsound and bad for the making of walkable places. Add to that that before Modern engineers told us they could rebuild the world, we often had to build environmentally soundly, because our cities had poor stormwater systems, for example, or we didn't have modern fertilizers and biogenetics to sustain unsoundly planted trees or crops. Of course we had many unhealthy practices, many of them introduced by the Industrial Revolution and agribusiness, but before Modernism gave us the means to re-engineer the world, we often had to live more closely with the consequences of our actions.
One result of our actions is that we can all agree on the need to be more environmentally responsible to preserve future life on Earth. The first built New Urban works were Seaside, Florida and Manhattan's Battery Park City, both started in 1981 and both proposed community and walkability as a way of reducing our carbon footprint. But it's a little known fact that Seaside was also one of the first planned xeriscape developments. The term was actually coined in the same year, although not well known outside very small circles of Western environmentalists.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Architects Experimenting on the Poor (Again)

from The Civitas Chronicles by Clem Labine, May 26th, 2010 
The New Carver Apartments in Los Angeles provide 97 small living units for homeless residents. Upon approaching this bleak, hard-edged structure, however, it’s hard not to feel that one is about to be locked up in some sort of detention facility. The building looks more like a jail than a residence.  Photo: Abitare
The New Carver Apartments in Los Angeles provide 97 small living units for homeless residents. Upon approaching this bleak, hard-edged structure, however, it’s hard not to feel that one is about to be locked up in some sort of detention facility. The building looks more like a jail than a residence. Photo: Abitare

In the mid-20th century, Modernist architects were notorious for trying out social engineering theories on projects for low-income people. Many of these experiments were ended by dynamite.
But it looks like design experiments on the powerless continue. In Los Angeles, architect Michael Maltzan has just completed the 97-unit New Carver Apartments next to the Santa Monica Freeway to provide housing for the homeless. The 57,000-sq.ft. project was built by the Skid Row Housing Trust, a nonprofit organization devoted to creating various types of low-income housing. All laudable goals; so far so good.
Besides providing affordable housing, however, apparently the Trust is also devoted to the Modernist ideal of creating “architectural icons.” Molly Rysman, the Trust’s director of special projects, summed it up best: “It’s not about blending in, but about having an impact.”
No one will accuse Michael Maltzan’s building of “blending in” – or looking anything like a traditional apartment building. But the structure certainly fits right into the pattern of stand-alone sculpture-buildings that architecture critics routinely label “iconic.” Because of its bizarre appearance, commentators love the New Carver Apartments, with the cheering being led by Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic for the New York Times.
The critics love it, but what about the people who have to live in the structure? Architectural critics seem to make a point of never interviewing the people who actually use these “iconic” buildings. To this observer, the building looks like a prison – not a residence. Do men and women who are already powerless feel comfortable in a cold, machine-like, sharp-edged building? In my opinion, this building does not say “home” but rather gives residents the feeling of being in the grip of a powerful alien force.
The New Carver Apartments are a perfect example of the different world views of Modernists and Traditionalists. Modernists can’t help but project their own egos onto a project in a never-ending quest for novelty and “something entirely different.” That’s what they were taught to do. A Traditionalist architect handling this same project would have been more concerned with giving psychic comfort to the residents by furnishing them with forms and ornament that provide emotional connection to their homes of memory.
It’s a shame that well-intentioned designers serve the ultimate users of their buildings so poorly because they’ve been blinded by the ideology they’ve been dosed with since architecture school.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Tear Down the Corviale! 

New Urbanism Comes to Rome

from Planetizen
24 May 2010 
Nikos Salingaros presents the case for demolishing a modernist eyesore in Rome and replacing it with a high-density, mixed-use New Urbanist neighborhood.
The Corviale building outside Rome is a social housing block that exemplifies the established Corbusian tradition of treating human beings as battery chickens. It was built during 1972-1982 as a single one-kilometer-long building. It is now estimated to house 6,000 people. Apologists who are nostalgic of Soviet-era social experiments continue to defend its paradigmatic modernist design on the grounds that every resident is EQUALLY oppressed in this inhuman environment, an ideal consistent with totalitarian notions of social equality.
Apartments in the Corviale Building. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Matteo Dudek)
I am involved in an architectural revolution that is occurring today in Italy, and which may hopefully spread to the rest of Europe and the World. We are proposing tearing down the Corviale and replacing it with new urbanist fabric consisting of 3-5 storey buildings tightly knit together with pedestrian and vehicular connections, and supported by a network of urban spaces and green on the human scale. This comes as a shock to many Italian readers.
Immediately after the Italian elections of just a few weeks ago, incoming politician Teodoro Buontempo announced that he is going to tear down the Corviale. The Corviale monster (also called the "Giant Serpent") will be replaced by a high-density mixed-use city. At this moment, we have three very nice projects by three of my friends in Italy: Ettore Maria Mazzola, Gabriele Tagliaventi, and Cristiano Rosponi. These very different new urbanist designs offer three responses to the problem of building new urban fabric and replacing existing urban tissue that is gangrenous.
The Corviale site as it is currently planned.
It is worth discussing what these solutions represent within their broader political, historical, and social implications:
  1. This is probably the first time that new urbanist projects are laid out in front of the Italian public accompanied by strong political support. Thus far, the press has conspired with the Universities to bury any traditional urban projects so as to be able to deny their very existence. That way, the architectural establishment could continue to live off the deception that buildings and cities "simply cannot be built that way anymore".
  2. Mazzola's project is new (2010). Tagliaventi’s project (A Vision of Europe, 2008) was published in magazines and on the internet but was ignored by the mainstream media so that no one remembers it as having existed at all. Rosponi's project (Agenzia per la Città, 1997) was presented to the Italian government about 13 years ago, which then included Teodoro Buontempo in a less powerful position than he holds today, but the design was not implemented and was buried in the cupboard by the succeeding administrations.
  3. Having three very different new urbanist projects on the table exposes the second great deception of modernist urbanists: the claim that traditional architects supposedly offer the same tired solution which copies old buildings. This self-serving statement is false. Having discovered the correct mathematical rules for human-scale architecture and urbanism, we can generate an infinite number of adaptive solutions, each one different from the other, yet all comparably human. It is the modernist image-based pseudo-solutions that turn out oppressively similar in their non-adaptivity to human needs.
The Gabriele Tagliaventi Plan

The Ettore Maria Mazzola Plan

The Cristiano Rosponi Plan
Since all three protagonists are my friends, and I could be involved with the detailed execution of one of the designs when it is chosen, I will not compare the relative merits of these three alternatives. They are distinct in approach and show many interesting differences in implementation. All three are viable alternatives and have valuable urban lessons to teach. Suffice it to say that we welcome having even more new urbanist suggestions on a new Corviale: even a fourth and fifth design of a living quarter on the human scale, just to show the Italian public the rich variety of adaptive design possibilities without the need for any duplication.
All three proposals plan to build one portion of new city, then move some of the residents and demolish the vacated space, repeating this process in stages until the entire Corviale has been replaced. Increasing the eventual total area of habitable space without spreading beyond the original grounds will enable the new urbanist projects to largely pay for themselves.
The Critics
We are facing competition, unfortunately supported by the Italian press as being of comparable value to our more radical proposals for rebuilding, coming from young architects who are still fixated upon formal geometries and propose some superficial changes such as paint, making the wall surfaces look "contemporary", and other palliatives. Those architects haven't learned that the human use of architecture depends upon its basic geometry, not upon surface appearances. It is the inhuman scale of the cement slabs and they way they are arranged that create the Corviale's deadly oppressive environment. The absolutist out-of-scale geometry was wrong to begin with, and that error has to be admitted before the built environment can be fixed. Friendly surfaces are certainly essential, but if placed upon the wrong forms they can never fix the basic problem.
Another argument that has blocked previous attempts to condemn the Corviale in the past as an architectural, social, and political failure is the following. Apologists keep mentioning the "incompleteness"of the project, supposedly needing more investment to realize its initial dream (of course); with just some more money everything will turn into a dreamland of joy and happiness. The planned shops on the fourth storey were never completed; the lovely play gardens were never built. But children are happy to play anywhere they feel psychologically comfortable, yet such spaces are sadly missing in the Corviale. Here, the most basic laws of urban structure were ignored, because urban complexity arises through people's movement, which can never occur on the fourth storey. Healthy commerce develops and thrives from network connectivity. What happened instead is that the optimistically labeled "commercial" spaces were occupied by squatters (and still are). Calls for evicting those illegal settlers ignore that they are merely obeying urban pressures to occupy vacant unconnected interior space. The squatters turn out to be better informed about urbanism than the original architects.
Commerce did in fact develop as appropriate to the Corviale's geometry of dreary and dark corridors. The Corviale is recognized as a thriving center for the narcotics trade, prostitution, and a variety of criminal activities. The business perfectly matches the architectural and urban form. If you want retail commerce and schools, then you simply need to change the geometry.

Another view of the Corviale Building. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Matteo Dudek)
Tearing down the Corviale is a great opportunity for human-scale urbanism. But there also exist strong obstacles of a deep ideological nature. I urge readers around the world to watch this battle because the modernists and their political allies could choose to make a last stand. It is not simply an argument about a monstrous and ugly building, but about the monstrous and ugly ideology that permitted such a building (and many others like it) to be built in the first place. Losing Corviale to New Urbanism could well represent the beginning of the end of totalitarian rule in urban morphology, and so for the entrenched ideologues, it's worth fighting to preserve it.
The Corviale was sadly built just at the time when the US recognized that monstrous social housing blocks were an inhuman mistake, a failed experiment on a massive scale. Pruitt-Igoe in Saint Louis began to be dynamited by the Government in 1972, whereas Corviale was begun at exactly this time. It’s a pity that the Italian architecture community did not learn from American mistakes, as it would have saved them a lot of grief. Corviale was called "visionary", a term still used in Italian academia. Urban crimes against humanity are taught to architecture students as examples to follow, and their architects presented as heroes. Severe criticism of inhuman housing projects in Italy over several decades has not made the slightest difference.
If the reader does not mind me quoting from one of my papers, I wish to conclude on a note of warning about the seriousness of the underlying issues:
"Choosing to erect anonymous blocks without the slightest reference to the essential properties of a house, projects are then executed with pseudoscientific accuracy… they have been planned, exalted, advertised, and studied in all the universities. Those projects have been taught as positive examples to students, by architects who have transformed a vision they originally declared to be "ethical" into an "aesthetic" dimension, which ended up as a mix of mechanization and political ideology… Four examples of public housing built in Italy: Monte Amiata in Milan, Corviale in Rome, Scampia in Naples, and Zen in Palermo, were condemned by European urbanists in 1991 as being total and abysmal failures. Nevertheless, 15 years later, those very projects were spotlighted in an exhibition of innovative Italian architecture, which toured the major Italian universities. These examples, wherein similar cases gave rise to opposite lessons, underline that the discipline itself stubbornly sticks to a failed ideology."
-P. Pagliardini, S. Porta & N. A. Salingaros, "Geospatial analysis and living urban geometry", Chapter 17 of: Bin Jiang and Xiaobai Angela Yao, Editors, Geospatial Analysis and Modeling of Urban Structure and Dynamics, Springer, New York, 2010.

Dr. Nikos Salingaros is professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and is also on the architecture faculties of the University of Rome III and the Delft University of Technology. He is consultant to the Schools of Architecture of the Catholic University of Portugal, Viseu, and the Tecnológico de Monterrey, Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico. Dr. Salingaros is Associate Editor of Katarxis III -- an online journal of New Architecture, New Science, and New Urbanism; the Nexus Network Journal; and the Online Planning Journal. He also ranked 11th in Planetizen's 2009 poll of Top Urban Thinkers.

Corviale is one of the housing projects built on the outskirts of Rome in the 1970's as part of the 1964 regional plan to alleviate crowding in the older central city. It is well-known as the longest single residential building in Europe: an 11-story high slab of apartments nearly 1 km in length. Conceived as an independent community for about 8000 people including other facilities such as schools, shopping, recreation facilities and even a church, the building was based on the idea of social housing to provide all needed infrastructures of a city within the complex itself, and to encourage social contacts between the occupants. For internal and political reasons many of these originally planned structures were never realized or are, almost 20 years after the first occupants moved in, still unfinished. The area suffers from the lack of an adequate metropolitan infrastructure and it remains isolated from the greater city of which it was intended to be a part.

Sunday, 6 February 2011 New Palladians
architect, Ettore Maria Mazzola, Roma

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