Monday, August 24, 2015

Mending the Urban Fabric

Berkeley is working on a plan for the Adeline St. corridor, where the street was too wide to begin with and was made even worse by traffic engineers when BART was built there, fifty years ago.  I am proposing a plan to mend the broken urban fabric and to provide more affordable housing.

For example, at the south end of the corridor, one side of an old-fashioned neighborhood shopping street was removed to add a massively overbuilt intersection and unused landscaping, as you can see in this picture. 


My proposal removes the unneeded landscaping and uses a traditional block structure rather than this massive intersection, reclaiming enough land to create two small blocks that can be used to build affordable housing.


The plan has gotten some favorable response from neighborhood residents and from a city council member.  There will be a meeting about the plan this weekend, where I expect that about a dozen neighborhood residents will speak in favor of studying this proposal as one of the alternative in the plan.

For more information and proposals for other sites in the corridor, see http://www.preservenet.com/adeline/

Monday, July 27, 2015

Saved From Robert Moses' Lower Manhahattan Expressway

I was recently in New York, taking some pictures for my forthcoming book Architecture in a Technological Society: The Humanists Versus the Reactionary Avant Garde. To illustrate a turning point in the history of urbanism, I took a series of pictures of the north side of Broome Street, which Robert Moses would have demolished to build his Lower Manhattan Expressway.  The famous writer and urbanist, Jane Jacobs, helped lead the opposition that stopped this freeway.

This freeway would have sliced through the neighborhood that is now called SoHo, which was considered a slum at the time but which has since become one of New York's most popular shopping and residential neighborhoods. It is so successful that Cadillac recently decided to move its headquarters to SoHo and to run advertisements campaign meant to rehabilitate the image of that car by showing pictures of it in SoHo.  It is unlikely that the neighborhood would have had this revival if Robert Moses' freeway had sliced through it.

I will only be able to use one picture of this street in my book, so I am posting a series of pictures of Broome Street here.  These pictures go from west to east, and they are all on the north side of Broome Street between Sullivan Street and the Bowery, which would have been demolished for Moses' freeway.  








The new Cadillac headquarters is in a SoHo neighborhood with similar character that is a bit to the west of this part of Broome Street, at 330 Hudson Street - just a couple of blocks from where Jane Jacobs lived when she helped to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Economic Growth and World Resources

We can see the pressure that economic growth will put on resources in this century by looking at China as an example:
  • If China consumed as much oil per person as America now does, China alone would use more than the world’s total current oil production.
  • If China consumed as much paper as per person as America now does, China alone would need more paper than the world currently produces.
  • If China generated as much greenhouse gas emissions per person as America now does, China alone would generate more emissions than the entire world now generates. 
  • If Chinese owned as many cars as Americans, it would have over a billion cars, more than the entire world has today.
The same is true for a wide range of resources: if the average Chinese consumed as much as the average American does today, China alone would consume more resources than the entire world does today.  
China is just an example: the entire world will also approach American levels of consumption in this century, if current trends continue.


This chart projects growth of per capita GDP between 1980 and 2010 into the future.  China's growth has slowed recently, but a recent World Bank study predicts that it will reach America's current level of income in the 2040s. We can see in the graph that India is not far behind China.

Even more surprising, we can see that, before the end of the century, the entire world would have a per capita GDP as great as America has now, if recent trends continue.

If China's reaching American levels of consumption would put so much strain on the world's consumption of resources, than imagine the effect of the whole world reaching American levels of consumption.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Robert Reich Misses One

I usually admire Robert Reich's videos on reducing inequality, but the latest one has an important omission that shows a gap in his thinking - and in the traditional thinking of the left.

It is a video about Family Friendly Workplaces that has four proposals.


But one proposal that is essential to making workplaces more family friendly is conspicuously absent: "right-to-request" laws that make it easier for parents (and all employees) to choose part time work or flexible working arrangements such as telecommuting.

This sort of law has been successful for over a decade in several European countries. In 2013, it moved to America, as Vermont and San Francisco passed right-to-request laws. And in 2014, President Obama issued an executive order giving the right-to-request to all federal employees.

The president's executive order makes it clear that this sort of law is now part of the mainstream liberal agenda.

How is it that former Secretary of Labor Reich misses a proposal that will obviously benefit labor and that is essential to making work places more family friendly? How is it that he supports a proposal for universal child care, which would be very expensive, but misses this proposal to help parents spend more time caring for their own children, which would be virtually cost-free and which would reduce the need to pay for child care?

Traditionally, the left emphasized the problems of the poor - beginning with the nineteenth-century working class, which lived at close to subsistence level.

Reich is part of this older tradition, and two of his four proposals show it.  Regular hours (proposal 2) are important for fast-food and retail workers, who are generally paid near the minimum wage and who are often required to be on call, so they cannot plan in advance for child care.  Universal child care (proposal 3) would provide the greatest benefit to parents who cannot afford to cut their hours to take time to care for their own children.

Of of course, it is essential to protect low-paid workers, as these proposals do.  But if we want to change the direction of our economy, it is also essential to protect higher-paid workers who can afford to cut back a bit on their hours and who would be willing to give up a bit of income in order to have more time with their children - or more time for their own interests.

The left has traditionally focused on the problems of poverty, but the problems of affluence have become just as important. Our long work hours - and the high levels of income and of consumption that go with them - are a major contributor to global warming and other environmental problems.

Germans earn about as much per hour as Americans, but the average German employee works 20% fewer hours than the average American employee.  If Americans worked the same hours as the Dutch, Germans, or Norwegians, it would reduce our carbon footprint and ecological footprint by 20% or more.

And that number would become larger over time, since European work hours are going down, while American work hours are stagnating.


This is a blind spot of the old left.  The focus on programs that benefit poorer people who need to consume more, which is certainly important. They ignore programs that would let people downshift economically and consume less so they have more time for their families and their own interests, which is also important - and which will become more important as global warming and other environmental crises become worse during the coming century.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Feiffer on Architecture

These cartoons by Jules Feiffer, originally published in the 1960s, say exactly what needs to be said about modern architecture and urbanism. 







Monday, March 23, 2015

More About the Reactionary Avant Garde

Here is another selection from Architecture in a Technological Society: The Humanists Versus the Reactionary Avant Garde. For longer selections from this work in progress, see http://www.preservenet.com/archtech/

What is Progressive?

Avant gardists claim that, because their architecture is futuristic, it is politically progressive, while traditional architecture is politically conservative or reactionary.
To make our architecture relevant to the key political questions of our time, we need to reject this way of thinking. In today’s technological society, the modernists support the status quo while the humanists are working for social change.

From Radical to Establishment

The avant-garde style began around the time of World War I, became generally accepted during mid-century, and has become today’s establishment style—which is why it is now “avant gardist” rather than genuinely avant garde.
Its gestures seemed radical a century ago, because they rejected the traditional society that dominated Europe and the United States at that time, when it still made some sense to believe that radicalism involved a total break with the past.
During the 1950s, modernism still had some of its early radical spirit. It was not only on the leading edge esthetically but also on the leading edge of progressive social reform. In 1950, the freeways and the high-rise housing projects were still part of the progressive project of getting the masses out of the slums by providing suburban housing for the middle class and providing sanitary public housing for the poor. Glass-steel-and-concrete modernism was still an exciting break with the past, symbolizing the rejection of oppressive traditions.
During the 1960s, the modernist vision was put into practice widely enough that everyone saw it was failing. Modernist housing projects became vertical slums that were worse than the old slums they replaced. Freeways spread sprawl and blighted older neighborhoods. There were citizens’ revolts against both of these modernist impositions on existing neighborhoods—and these citizens’ movements represented a new direction for progressive politics.
During the 1970s, it began to become clear that modernism was now the status quo, and it was oppressive. The glass and steel office buildings towering over the old downtowns of our cities, and the high-rise housing projects towering over the old slums, looked cold and impersonal—like the impersonal technological economy that produced them. Social critics said that we live in a technological society, where ordinary people are powerless. Environmentalists created a political movement dedicated to controlling destructive technologies.
In the 1970s, mid-century modernism was exhausted. The modernists’ glass, steel, and concrete boxes, which had seemed so striking in the 1950s, were now anything but new and different. Serious postmodernists began to look for ways to build on a more human-scale, while other architects searched for fresh novelties that could still shock and surprise people - leading to the ironic side of postmodernism and then to today’s avant-gardism.
Our avant gardists produce futuristic architecture, like the early modernists, but are no longer capable of the social idealism of the early modernists. The political meaning has disappeared because today’s avant-gardist architects are not responding to the needs of our time in the way that the early modernists responded to the needs of the last century. A century ago, the modernist esthetic fit right in with the progressive goal of building a technological economy that could eliminate poverty and sweep away traditional forms of oppression. Today, this technophilia has faded, and our avant-gardist architects create high-tech forms purely for the sake of novelty. They are not part of a larger progressive political movement, and they have no social ideal to give their forms meaning.
Modernism changed from a radical movement to the status quo because our society changed. The modernists criticized the traditional society of the early twentieth century in the name of technology and progress. But they have no critical insight into the new problems of today’s technological society.
The task of our time is to use technology for human purposes. The avant garde tries to create totally new forms, and it is so eager to reject that past that it rejects principles that were common to all traditional and vernacular architecture because evolution hardwired them into human nature. The avant gardists are not part of the broader progressive politics of our time, because they work against the key political task of our time, using technology in a way that is consonant with human nature.

Avant gardists as Conservatives

Today’s avant gardists keep the esthetic dogmas of early modernism—its rejection of historic ornamentation and its search for strikingly original designs—but their buildings no longer symbolizes any social ideal. Avant gardists sometimes play at being radical by claiming that their architecture is subversive, but their attempt to "subvert conventional ideas of what a building is" obviously have no effect at all on the real world of politics. They are just precious esthetes talking about subversion to other esthetes. They are not part of a larger movement to reform society, as mid-century modernist architects were part of the larger progressive movement of their time.
In fact, avant gardism is the preferred style of our technological corporate economy. It should have become clear decades ago that the glass high-rises of the mid-twentieth century modernists, far from being politically progressive, were symbols of the dominance of the modern corporation—towering over the city, expressing the power of the corporations that built them. And today’s avant gardists have inherited the modernists’ corporate clients.
London’s skyline was marred by boxy modernist office buildings decades ago, and now it is being ruined by even larger avant-gardist office buildings with nicknames that describe their strange shapes, such as the "gherkin" and the "shard of glass." The mayor of London explained to a journalist why he wants to build more high-rises in this style: 'In the global tussle between world metropolises for investment and jobs, he says, companies will choose London only if they can occupy "signature buildings." Despite their self-consciously radical posturing, these avant gardist high-rises are today's corporate architecture, just as boxy high-rises were the corporate architecture of mid-century.
The avant gardists' conservatism is most obvious on the rare occasions when they touch on real political issues—for example, when Ouroussoff talks about the beauty of cities built around the freeway. Freeway revolts were an important part of the progressive politics of the 1960s and the 1970s, and many progressive environmentalists today want to remove some existing freeways, with the Congress for the New Urbanism taking the lead. Ouroussoff is blissfully ignorant of the progressive politics of the last five decades, and he has moved backward to the thinking of Siegfried Giedion and Robert Moses.
But this conservatism also pervades their work more generally. Their designs express the idea that we should any flashy new technology that is available, no matter how inhuman, at a time when progressives are trying to control destructive technologies.

Humanism as Social Change

Unlike the avant gardists, the New Urbanists are part of a powerful movement to reform society. Environmental groups across America support New Urbanism and smart growth in order to fight suburban sprawl, to conserve energy, and to slow global warming. When environmentalists in Portland wanted to stop the Western Bypass freeway, they got the New Urbanist planner, Peter Calthorpe to draft a regional plan based on transit-oriented development, and they got other New Urbanists to design transit-oriented suburbs, such as Orenco Station.
The New Urbanists use models from the past, building developments that are like the railroad suburbs, streetcar suburbs, and urban neighborhoods of a century ago - and this is a real challenge to the modern economy, because it implies that Americans would be better off living more simply. Suburbia and the automobile were the mainstays of postwar American consumerism, and the New Urbanists are saying that we would be better off if we lived in homes that use less land and in neighborhoods where we have the choice of walking rather than being totally auto-dependent.
Environmentalists support New Urbanist design because it preserves open space and reduces energy consumption. The people who move to New Urbanist neighborhoods like them because they let you avoid the tension of driving in congested traffic on high-speed roads and because they have a stronger sense of community than conventional suburbs.
If New Urbanist neighborhoods are more livable than conventional automobile-dependent suburbs, that fact is a real challenge to ExxonMobile, General Motors, and Wal-Mart - while the radical posturing of the avant gardists does not challenge the modern economy at all. New Urbanism challenges the modern economy, because it implies that we should replace our single-minded focus on economic growth with a new focus on quality of life.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Humanists Versus the Reactionary Avant Garde

I am working on a book named Architecture in a Technological Society: The Humanists Versus the Reactionary Avant Garde.

It is still a work in progress, but I have posted a few chapters on the web to get comments on them.  You can read them at http://www.preservenet.com/archtech/

Here is a selection from Chapter 1:



Today’s avant-gardist architects consider themselves progressive, but they are actually reactionary: they have forgotten the lessons of the 1960s and the 1970s and have gone back to the technophilia of mid-century modernism.
Society in general has moved beyond modernism since the 1970s, largely as a result of the environmental movement. There are only two groups in today’s society that celebrate technology uncritically. One is the “drill, baby, drill” wing of the Republican party, which knows that it is conservative because it sticks with the technophilia of the 1950s. The other is the architectural establishment, which has somehow convinced itself that it is progressive because it is reviving the technophilia of the 1950s.
Today’s avant-gardism is a reactionary style, a cliquish taste that ignores the lessons that society began to learn in the 1970s. It is retrograde esthetically, a revival of earlier modernist styles. It is retrograde politically, coming at a time in history when it is vital to limit destructive technologies.

Humanizing Technology

This recent history of architecture and urbanism is important because it deals involves a key issue of our time: How should we use technology for human purposes?
Among mid-century modernists, the design centered on the technology. The dogma was that the design must be an “honest expression” of modern materials and functions—in other words, an expression of modern technology. The modernists’ designs were so striking visually that they helped spread technophilia through society.
Among the serious postmodernists and the New Urbanists, design centers on the human users. They are not against modern technology, but they are selective in their use of technology. They use modern technology when it helps to create good places for people.
For example, modernists designed cities around the automobile. They had faith that this new technology would improve our lives and, in any case, would inevitably dominate our lives, because you can’t stop progress. By the 1960s, it was becoming clear that the modernists’ theories had created an ugly, environmentally destructive suburban landscape of freeways, shopping malls, and auto-dependent subdivisions.
The New Urbanists take a more reasonable view of this technology, accommodating the automobile but not letting it dominate our lives. New Urbanist design centers on creating streets and public spaces that are attractive, comfortable places for people, and it accommodates the automobile ways that further this goal. They emphasize that their traditional urbanism can accommodate any style of architecture, and they mention Tel Aviv and Miami’s South Beach as examples of cities where good traditional urbanism is combined with modernist architecture, but their goal is to create good places rather than to design an “expression” of modern technology.
Modernists also designed individual buildings around new technology: the buildings were “honest expressions” of glass, steel, and concrete. By the 1970s, it was becoming clear that these buildings were cold, sterile and overwhelming. Serious postmodernists tried to design buildings that were attractive, comfortable places for people to be.
Yet today’s avant gardists have gone back to the sterile high-tech design of the modernists with added “artistic” touches. They often create very uncomfortable places for people to be.
The use of technology is a key issue of our time, because modern technology gives us more power and more freedom of choice than ever before.
We can use the power that technology gives us well or badly. Modern technology can be immensely beneficial; an obvious example is polio vaccination. And it can be immensely destructive; an obvious example is nuclear weapons. We need to use the beneficial technology and limit the destructive technology.
We can use the freedom of choice that technology gives us well or badly. For example, traditional agricultural societies had a limited variety of foods that they grew locally, they prepared these foods in a few conventional ways, and they lived with the constant threat of hunger. Modern societies have a greater abundance and variety of foods, which gives us much more choice about what we eat. Everywhere in the world, people can choose to eat the corn that was domesticated in the Americas, the rice that was domesticated in Asia, the wheat and barley that were domesticated in the Middle East, the spices that were domesticated in the Indies, and a vast number of other foods that originated in every corner of the world. We can use this abundance to eat a more varied and healthier diet than any society in the past, or we can use it to eat a diet that is heavy on processed food and high-fructose corn syrup, the diet that has made today’s American more obese than any society in the past.
It is easy to add similar examples. Modern technology lets us choose among a huge variety of drugs, which we can use to cure diseases or which we can abuse to feed addictions.
The same reasoning applies to architecture. Modern technology lets us choose among many different ways to build. Traditional societies were limited by the local materials and the relatively simple techniques available to them; their vernacular buildings were stylistically consistent because they did not have the choice of building in any other way. Today, we have a much greater choice of materials and of building methods. We can use this choice to design buildings and cities that are more livable than ever before, or to design buildings and cities that are more sterile and overwhelming than ever before.
The architecture establishment says we should build in styles that are “of our time” and that anyone who learns from traditional architecture is “nostalgic.” They should learn from the more sensible attitude that we have toward food. The best restaurants use locally grown, fresh ingredients because they produce healthier, tastier food. Traditional societies also used locally grown, fresh ingredients, but no one says that these restaurants are “nostalgic” and that they should use canned or frozen ingredients produced for the world market because industrial agriculture is “of our time.”
No one cares about this sort of precious esthetic criticism of food because we have very clear criteria for deciding which food are good: taste and nutritional value. The best restaurants use some new technology, such as sous vide cooking, but they use them because the food tastes better—not because they are “of our time.”
These criteria are based on human nature. Our bodies evolved to need certain nutrients. Our tastes evolved to make us enjoy food that helped our ancestors survive during the period of evolutionary adaptation. Evolution has hard-wired these needs and preferences into human nature, and chefs work to accommodate them.
Has evolution also given us preferences about the buildings that we live in and use? Are there aspects of human nature that architects should work to accommodate? We will look at this question in the next chapter.
Since the 1970s, the environmental movement has shown us that we must make a deliberate choice of technologies—for example, by choosing solar and wind power rather than coal to generate our electricity—but this movement focuses on limiting the most destructive technologies that pose grave threats to health or to the natural environment, such as global warming. Architecture and urbanism could do much more. Because they design the built environment that we live in, they could help society learn how to use modern technology in ways that are in keeping with human nature. 
Our avant gardists are designing the most dehumanized buildings ever built, but their approach is not inevitable. Just as mid-century-modernist architects helped spread faith in technology and progress, today’s architects could help spread the idea that we should use modern technology for human purposes.

read more at http://www.preservenet.com/archtech/