The Death of Architecture, Part 1.

Sad artificiality and fabricated environs (which, frankly, wasn’t even accurate for the season.)

I consider myself reasonably well-read when it comes to architectural thought leaders, from starchitects to historic luminaries to future-forward theorists. However, after reading Vanishing New York, something has happened to me, a sudden and dramatic shift in perspective that feels as if I am enlightened in a completely different way and feels like waking up after having been part of a self-perpetuating, self-worshiping cult of architects for the past 20 years. I’ve written several recent posts that have skirted this issue, but never one that tackles it directly, because the feeling has never been as clear as it is at present.

The final shoe dropped for me this past week when I stopped by the reconstructed Bjarke Ingels Serpentine Pavilion in Toronto. The unfortunately titled— “unzipped” —exhibition occupies what appears to be a disused courtyard on King Street West just outside the theatre-ish district of Toronto. The much touted reconstruction is sponsored by Westbank, the Canadian real estate development firm known for employing signature architects to design signature buildings across Canada.

Bjarke Ingels Unzipped Serpentine Pavillion Toronto Westbank
Unzipped Brochure

Every year since 2000 the Serpentine Gallery in London has commissioned a temporary summer pavilion by a leading architect. The series presents the work of an international architect or design team who has not completed a building in England at the time of the Gallery’s invitation. Past luminaries have included Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Peter Zumthor, Herzog & de Meuron, Socar Niemeyer, Álvaro Siza, Ai Weiwei, and—of course—Bjarke Ingels. Each Pavilion is completed within six months and is situated on the Gallery’s lawn for three months for the public to explore and is then deconstructed and only in rare instances makes an encore appearance somewhere else in the world.

Like a good architectural soldier and without hesitation, I somewhat robotically and unquestioningly planned a visit the reconstructed pavilion, armed with my “ticket” and iPhone in hand, ready to take photos of the structure at jaunty angles to post on my Instagram feed.

The pavilion was about 2 storeys tall.
Inside the pavilion.

Immediately upon my arrival, I was struck by the artificiality of the pavilion and its contextual environment, in terms of materiality, in terms of manufactured context, and in terms of faux authenticity. As I sat on the plastic turf lawn staring at the giant pile of epoxy “blocks”, I couldn’t help but take notice John Andrews’ CN tower peeking out above it. The CN tower remains one of the largest human-made structures in the Northern Hemisphere, and it’s an impressive engineering and construction feat despite the fact that the tower turned 45 this year. As I gazed at the tower in the distance, I wondered… why was I sitting on plastic turf, surrounded by plastic shrubs looking at a plastic structure that was really just there an advertisement for a company that is trying to convince the general populace that (yet) another new condo tower would be a great addition to King Street West? Is this plastic fabrication the avant garde (or perhaps worse, the future) of architecture? Has (capital A) Architecture simply devolved into a red-light district for celebrity designers working in the service of commerce and commercialism? Is this the best we can do?

Even the “tickets” (necessary for entry past the security guard [who was so unbelievably haughty and othering {and her outfit so impeccably tailored} that there is no way in hell that she can be an actual security worker, she (and her impeccable makeup) simply must have been from central casting]) were artificial. The entire ticketing process is simply a mechanism for Westbank to subscribe visitors to an endless stream of e-mails and direct marketing. No exaggeration, I’ve received about 30 e-mails from them since Wednesday. (I’m writing this on the following Sunday.) And also no exaggeration, though I had a “ticket” there seemed to be very little demand for entry and there wasn’t a soul ahead of me in line.

I left the pavilion feeling disappointed and sad and wondering… Is this it? Is this what I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life studying, researching, and teaching, and if so… What’s next?

Blocks.
The pavilion with the CN Tower in the background.
Foundation.

Live/Work Trailer

I love this story about how this entrepreneurial woman decided to live and operate her store out of her Airstream trailer!

Read the entire article at: http://www.cosmopolitan.com/style-beauty/fashion/a12831800/petite-tenue-alexandra-archibald-airstream-interview/

Branding Matters In Local Government, And Atlanta Is Leading The Way

Place branding was the topic of my dissertation. I’ve continued to research and chart it since my dissertation was published, and it’s interesting to see how the entire branding exercise became so incredibly short-sighted and messy, and how that disorder eventually evolved into a better solution that is both responsible and functional.

From Fast Company:

Not all cities have a budget for design, but Atlanta’s department of urban planning is showing why they should.

Source: Branding Matters In Local Government, And Atlanta Is Leading The Way

The Creative Society

One of the very best (and most refreshing) books that I’ve read—really read, not just skimmed—in a long while is The Creative Society: How the Future Can Be Won by Lars Tvede. The book sets the American Studies canon on its head taking on “greats” like Jared Diamond. TCS examines not only how, but why we find ourselves where we are now. The root is his argument is that free exchange of ideas and goods constantly demands new methods and new ideas. This, he argues is creativity which fosters unparalleled capacity for moving forward human intelligence, ingunity, and intuition. Tvede makes a compelling case.

Why did Western Europe succeed in the later half of the 20th century, while Eastern Europe disintegrated. Why is South Korea a burgeoning economy, whereas North Korea struggles to feed its people. Why did the British, Russian, Soviet, Egyptian, Roman empires fail? Why was China a rapidly growing society from 1000–1900, but then slowed significantly since? Tvede argues that totalitarian regimes and rigidity in systems of governance extinguishes creativity. This occurs rapidly. The Roman Empire, for example unraveled over the span of 70 short years, after dominating much of the world for nearly 1500. The Soviet Empire collapsed within the span of 3 years after dominating half of Europe and most of Asia for nearly 100. These and other societies collapsed from the weight of creativity pulsing at its door. As the Soviets ushered in perestroika and glasnost, for example, the resultant (and latent) surge in creativity rapidly propelled the system of governance out of order.
Tvede makes a persuasive aruguement for accepting or resisting change and the causal correlations that stem from either acceptance or resistance. Think of the book as a ethnographic and historic underpinning to Florida’s immensely popular, but shallow on compelling argument, Rise of the Creative Class. This text is unabashed in its explanations and suppositions and takes on one prejudice after another and skillfully (and convincingly) defuses each. In so doing, answers the many, many questions that have plagued those of us interested in cultural dynamics and interpersonal dynamics. Tvede is on to something here, and what may be the best and most important book of the decade has received little, if any, press. Well worth a careful read. 

Creepy Soviet Space Shuttles Are Sitting in a Kazakhstan Desert

Image by Ralph Mirebs, originally published in National Geographic.

This amazing article in National Geographic charts the story of a brave soul, Alexander Kaunas, and his companion, photographer Ralph Mirebs, who broke in to the former Soviet cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. 

Amazing images, amazing legacy, amazing bravery.

Why Roman concrete still stands strong while modern version decays


I have often wondered about this! Specifically, why ancient concrete seems to hold up exceptionally well, while modern concrete seems to degrade almost immediately. Now I know the reason! Read the entire article at: Why Roman concrete still stands strong while modern version decays | Science | The Guardian

Unsafe: Delaware Park

Police and Fire vehicles like to zoom through Delaware Park on the ring road. Keep in mind that the fire truck weighs about 100x the amount of a bicyclist.

Shame, shame, shame. There is enough to go around in Buffalo.

Just over two years ago, Maksym Sugorovskiy was killed in a tragic accident in Delaware Park in Buffalo. His mother and sister were also injured. The story broke my heart, and each and every day when I run through Delaware Park, I say a silent prayer for little Maksym and his family.

The tragedy led to immediate—and unprecedented—political action by Governor Andrew Cuomo who downgraded the 198 expressway to a parkway and overnight changed the speed limit from 50 to 30. Neighbourhood proponents still stunned by the tragedy were pleased with the action. Later that summer, the newly qualified “parkway” was re-stripped, and crash barricades were installed along the park-side of the corridor. The New York State Department of Transportation promised to review the parkway and has since put forth a number of lacklustre plans that have been met with public disgust.

The problem is complex and it’s growing.

The first round of shame goes to Gov. Cuomo who scored political points for the immediate downgrade of the 198 and then never made another peep about it.

The second round of shame goes to the grossly disinterested, disrespectful, and disengaged DOT.

The third round of shame goes to the City and the Olmsted Parks Conservancy.

Governor Cuomo mistakenly handed off the redesign of the 198 to the state DOT, which is both woefully under qualified and grossly negligent in its street design ability. Their significant failures litter the Western New York landscape and—frankly—make the streets of Western New York less and less safe. NYS DOT seems unable to plan, in any comprehensive manner. They approach planning as a street-by-street approach, which has compounded the problems surrounding the park. I could name a thousand examples across the region (and specifically around Delaware Park) but the dangerous concrete medians installed along neighbouring Main Street in the Parkside district are one example. These medians were installed with the intent of slowing traffic on Main Street. Instead, they have slowed traffic and provided an unsafe obstacle for motorists on icy and poorly lit roads to hit time and time again. The result is that rather than tool along Main Street at 30mph in stop-and-go traffic, frustrated motorists hemorrhage from Main Street to residential side streets to zoom by (and through stop signs) at 50mph in search of a “short cut” to their destination.

Vehicles race through Delaware Park ring road which is poorly striped and unsafe for pedestrians and bicyclists.
A vehicle taking a short cut through Delaware Park to bypass Parkside Avenue.
This parkway in Estonia has clearly delineated lanes for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Olmsted Conservancy vehicles regularly drive large vehicles on pedestrian paths and thoroughfares.
Few safety precautions are taken by the Olmsted Conservancy. Most activities would not stand up to OSHA muster.
A leaky Olmstead Conservancy vehicle left behind puddles of oil, a hazard for children, pets, pedestrians, and runners.
More puddles from a different vehicle on a different day.

This problem was compounded when much needed traffic calming measures were implemented to Parkside Avenue, adjacent to Delaware Park. Yes, the bump-outs and narrowed lanes have slowed traffic. Parkside (for a two block stretch) is undoubtedly safer as a result. The problem is that the parallel streets have become high-speed thoroughfares for speed-demon drivers in the neighbourhood. Likewise, since the traffic calming measures have been implemented on Parkside, the 198, and Main Street, speedy motorists have taken to using the Delaware Park ring road itself as a high speed shortcut from Agassiz Circle to Colvin through Delaware Park. Perhaps most disturbing is that this shortcut seems to be favoured by Olmsted Conservancy, Police and Fire vehicles zooming through the park to avoid traffic as well as private speeders alike. So, while we seemingly have endless press about ridiculous proposals to build a golf course in Delaware Park, the real issues of pedestrian and park patron safety goes completely unaddressed and unmentioned.

Problem zones in and around the park are circled in red. Issues with the 198 are not addressed in this graphic.

The re-design of the 198 has been mired in controversy and has been more than adequately covered in other fora, but I will add my disgust, disappointment, and disdain to the ever-growing chorus of Buffalonians when I say that the most recent public hearing for the 198 redesign hosted at the Olmsted School by the DOT was disgusting. The event was poorly planned, with three DOT officials sitting at a long table on stage while the regional director talked at the audience. The three adjunct DOT officials said nothing, as they played games and laughed at funny social media posts on their smart phones. Safety is no laughing matter and their behaviour was grossly disrespectful to local residents and to the memory Maksym who lost his young life due in part to their inaction and inattentiveness. If Governor Cuomo truly cares about Western New York, beyond a quick political score following an unspeakable tragedy, these three men would (and should) immediately find themselves unemployed in light of their callous and brazen breech of public trust.

Like so many building, design, zoning, and planning issues in New York State, the problem is a decentralized decision making structure which aims for granular approval but misses the big picture. Why not take a neighbourhood approach to traffic calming and safety planning? More likely than not because the streets in question are a combination of State, City, and Park streets. (County streets it seems, in Erie County are, for the most part and in sharp constraint, impeccably serviced, always striped, resurfaced regularly, and are in decent repair.) When the State DOT implemented traffic calming measures on the Parkside stretch of Main Street, the 198, and Parkside, the City should have stepped in and added traffic calming—speed bumps, bump-outs, enhanced striping, rumble strips, or some combination—to the neighbouring residential side streets. They didn’t. The City and the Olmsted Conservancy should have taken the time and money to add basic safety measures such as speed bumps and stripes the ring road in Delaware Park. They didn’t.

Central Park in New York City has clearly separated and delineated lines for runners, bikers, pedestrians, and vehicles along with speed bumps every 1/4 mile.

It seems that most every other city in the world has recognized that painting stripes is a cheap and easy way at calming traffic as well as enhancing safety for bicyclists and other motorists. Despite this basic tenet of road design, the City of Buffalo remains asleep at the switch with more road surface than not suffering from faded lines, poorly discernible striping, and worse—roads with no stripping at all. I mean, seriously, how much can a can of paint and some time cost? I remember observing a work crew in St. Louis—prison work release folks—repainting stripes and arrows on the roadways. Why can’t New York State enact a similar measure? Are the citizens of New York not worthy of safe roads?

At the very least, the Olmsted Conservancy should be unabashedly ashamed of their lack of action. Despite several grants to improve road and path conditions in the park, absolutely no improvements have been made over the past two years. Again, seriously, how much could it take to stripe the 2.5km ring road around Delaware Park? Unlike sister Olmsted Conservancies like Central Park in New York City, or the Emerald Neckless in Boston, the Buffalo Olmsted Conservancy has opted for the path of least resistance and inaction.

The resultant negligence opens the city and the conservancy to significant liability when the next eminently preventible tragedy happens and is patently inexcusable.

Call upon your elected officials—state, city, and local—to make your voice heard on this important issue. You wouldn’t settle for a uncooked pizza if it were delivered to your house… why would you settle for unsafe roads in your neighbourhood?

Luuup Litter Box – The Best Cat Litter Box Ever

One of the very best things about living in Western New York is access to Canada and Canadian culture. Growing up, I remember Dini Petty on television, and then she retired… into being a millionaire litter box maven. Who knew?

Check this out. it’s a great product and a great idea from a great Canadian icon.

Our ingenious three sifting tray litter system is the smartest, cleanest and last litter box ever.

Source: Luuup Litter Box – The Best Cat Litter Box Ever | Indiegogo