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

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.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Interview on is a national organization that promotes flexible working arrangements.

They just published an interview with me about my book The Politics of Simple Living: Why Our Economy Is Making Life Worse and How We Can Make It Better.

They also included an embedded video about the Berkeley Flexible Work Time initiative, taken from the initiative web site.

Check it out at this site - and if the spirit moves you, feel free to leave comments.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Meaningful Skyline

Visually, it is best for a city to have a height limit of no more than six stories for fabric buildings. This is the scale that gives visual coherence to traditional European cities, where the cathedral and perhaps the campanile stand out above the urban fabric. We have a similar coherent scale in Washington D.C., where the Capitol dome and Washington Monument stand out above the urban fabric. It is also possible for a city to be visually coherent with a height limit of as much as twelve stories for fabric buildings, if it has symbolic buildings or towers large enough to give it a strong visual identity. With fabric buildings much higher than twelve stories, though, a city is bound to be dominated visually by a crowd of faceless high-rises, like most modern American downtowns; it can still work well as a city, but it will not be visually coherent.
The cathedrals and government buildings that dominate the skylines of traditional cities symbolized the shared values of the people who live there – common religious, cultural and political values. The glass and steel high-rises that dominate the skylines of American cities today symbolize our shared belief in technology and economic growth; the modernists said they were symbols of purely rational decision making, but they look more like symbols of technology that has never been controlled, of a society where growth is not subordinated to human purposes. 
If a contemporary American city were built with a six-story height limit for fabric buildings and no limits on symbolically important buildings, it would not center on one religious building, like the cathedral of mediaeval cities whose life centered on a common religion, and it would not center on one or two government buildings, like Washington, DC, a company town where life is dominated by the federal government. It would be much more pluralistic. 
In the city center, the largest buildings of the city’s major religions would rise above the urban fabric: perhaps a cathedral, a mosque, a Hindu temple. Several different types of civic building would rise above the urban fabric: city hall, the main courthouse, major museums. There might also be a purely symbolic structure in the city center, such as a campanile or a obelisk. Out in the neighborhoods, hundreds of smaller buildings would rise above the urban fabric: church steeples, local library branches, local courthouses, community centers. 
These should be designed to make a distinctive mark on the skyline: even if the building proper does not have to be larger than the fabric buildings that surround it, it should include a tower or spire that rises above the fabric. In some cases, we already have conventions that let us identify the type of building from a distance – steeples for churches, minarets for mosques, classical cupolas for government buildings. We should try to create an equally strong visual identity for other types of buildings. 
The typical skyline of our cities today is a clutter of faceless high-rises. You cannot even tell by looking at them which are office buildings and which are housing. It is usually boring, because most high-rises look more or less the same, but it is even worse when developers pull in avant-gardist architects who design high-rises that are weird just for the sake of being different. It is usually meaningless, because it is made up of housing and offices, which have no symbolic value, but if one building dominates the skyline, it can create inadvertent symbolism: for example, in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, the 60-story Bank of America Corporate Center, by the well known modernist architect Cesar Pelli, towers over the usual clutter of faceless high rises, and the skyline very clearly symbolizes the fact that this city is so fixated on growth that the developers can do what they want and the bankers are in charge. (They themselves would say it symbolizes the “economic dynamism” of their city – but that is just another way of saying the same thing.)
The skyline of the city we are imagining would be interesting, with distinctive building types rising above the fabric, including some structures that are unique to the city, like the Duomo of Florence or the Campanile of Venice. This skyline would also be meaningful: the urban fabric represents the necessities of life, housing and business, and the buildings that rise above the fabric represent the things that people believe make their lives worthwhile – religion, culture, self-government. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Victory for Flexible Work Time Initiative

Measure Q, the Berkeley Flexible Work Time Initiative, won overwhelmingly, with 78.79% voting Yes - a margin of more than three to one.

Because this was an advisory initiative, we still have a lot of work ahead of us, getting a law passed in Berkeley and getting a bill introduced in the state legislature.

This is the first time that flexible work time has ever been on the ballot, and the overwhelming victory shows that this is an issue whose time has come. Earlier this year, President Obama issued an executive order giving this sort of flexibility to federal employees. I expect the issue to keep becoming more prominent.

This is an issue that will change people's lives. There are lots of working couples who have trouble balancing work and family, and this sort of law will make their lives dramatically better.

We have made progress on our goal of getting people to see that work time is not only a family issue; it is also an environmental issue. If people choose to work less and consume less, they will also pollute less. Bill McKibben was one of the early endorsers of the initiative, and the Sierra Club and Green Party also endorsed it - as did the Democratic Party of Alameda County, showing that it is a mainstream issue.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Driverless Cars and Livable Cities

Most enthusiasts for driverless cars are not asking the right questions. They assume that our cities will not change and that driverless cars will make it easier for people to get around these cities. They focus on technological change and turn a blind eye to possible social change.

But when we start to ask how driverless cars can change our cities for the better, interesting ideas pop up.

For example, there would be obvious benefits to driverless cars that were programmed to observe the speed limit. There would have to be some sort of GIS telling the car what the speed limit is on each street it drives on.

We could not only reduce the danger of accidents by reducing speeding.  We could also lower speed limits drastically.

For example, we could lower the speed limit to 12 mph on bicycle priority streets, so bicycles can really share the road with cars rather than being forced to keep to the right. Today, most drivers exceed the speed limit. No one would obey a 12 mph limit, and in most states, it is illegal to set the speed limit lower than the actual speed of most drivers

If there were a significant number of driverless cars programmed to obeyed the speed limit, then the cars with drivers would also obey the speed limit - at least on roads with just one traffic lane in each direction, which are the best candidates for bicycle priority streets. The driverless cars would act as traffic calming devices that prevent other cars from going faster than the speed limit.

We could also create shared spaces, used by both pedestrians and cars, with speed limits as low as 5 mph.

Most radically, we could reduce speed limits across an entire city, so people would drive less, as I suggested in my book Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices.

Even without lower speed limits, it is interesting to speculate about how driverless cars could affect busy urban streets, filled with cars and pedestrians. Today, some pedestrians sneak across these streets, walking through the jammed traffic.  Many would probably realize that the driverless cars are programmed to stop when there is a pedestrian in front of them, and some would be willing to cross the street even if it means walking in front of that are moving slowly and forcing them to stop.  It would be frustrating for the people in the cars, but the street would become a better place for pedestrians to be.

The conventional wisdom is that driverless cars would make driving quicker and more efficient.  But if we want to make our cities more livable, we would do well to use driverless cars in ways that make driving slower - and sometimes even less efficient.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Driving to the Poor House

Protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, claim that the city relies on traffic tickets for too much of its revenue and that tickets for lower-income people often turn into bench warrants and jail time.

For example, one man received a $100 ticket and had only $80 when he went to pay it, so the ticket turned into a warrant for his arrest.

The ticketing is obviously unfair and a hardship to many people, so I support the protests.  But I wonder why none of the news stories about Ferguson mention the deeper issue that underlies it.  Why do we design our cities so people have to drive?

That man who doesn't have $100 to pay his traffic ticket undoubtedly spends thousands of dollars on his car each year. The cost is a hardship even to middle-class Americans and much more of a hardship to the poor.  Yet most Americans live in locations where they cannot go anywhere without driving.

I myself am lucky enough to live in an older city where it is possible to get around without a car.  I have bicycled as my main form of transportation for all of my adult life.  When I was commuting by bicycle, I estimated that I spend less than $50 per year on transportation, which went to occasional bike parts and repairs - quite a contrast with the $7,000 per year that the average American spends on transportation.

If I had owned a car all that time, I would have only about half as much in my savings as I do.

Let's deal with the short-term hardship caused by unfair ticketing in Ferguson, but let's also deal with the much greater economic burden of automobile dependency by rebuilding our cities so it is not mandatory to own an automobile.

It reminds me of the old saying of Will Rogers: America is the first country in history where people drive to the poorhouse. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Happiness: The Failure of Growth

International comparisons of how per capita GDP affects happiness reveal the same pattern that we saw in the last two posts about health care and education: economic growth (higher per capita GDP) increases happiness at lower levels of income but stops increasing happiness at a level much lower than what we now have in the United States.

Here is a graph of per capita GDP and people's responses to survey questions asking them how happy they are and how satisfied they are with their lives.

We can see that higher per capita GDP stops increasing happiness at about $15,000 per year, less than half the per capita GDP of the United States.

This result is not surprising. In poor countries, more income is needed to provide people with decent housing, food, education, health care, and other essentials; it makes sense that people will become happier as they can afford more of the necessities and basic comforts of life. But when people reach about one-half of the average American’s current income, they have enough to make them comfortable, and there is relatively little benefit to consuming even more. 
Once you have the basic elements of economic comfort, such as good housing, health care, and education, and you also have some luxuries, such as music, books, and travel, consuming even more does not bring great benefits—but it does bring real costs.
Growth continues to cause massive environmental costs even after it stops bringing significant benefits. There would obviously be less chance of ecological disruption in the coming century, if nations that were already economically comfortable tried to achieve the best possible quality of life rather than the fastest possible rate of economic growth.
Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, has written a book summarizing the current research on happiness, and he sums up the issue we face very neatly when he says:
“If it turns out to be true that rising incomes have failed to make Americans happier, as much of the recent research suggests, what is the point of working such long hours and risking environmental disaster in order to keep doubling and redoubling our Gross Domestic Product?” (Bok, The Politics of Happiness, p. 63)