Thursday, June 16, 2016

Two Holocaust Memorials: Two Views of Civic Art

I saw two holocaust memorials in Vienna, based on very different views of what civic art should be.

One is the Kindertransport Memorial, honoring the British for saving almost 10,000 children by transporting them from Nazi controlled areas to foster homes in Britain. The memorial, Für Das Kind by Flor Kent (2008), is at Vienna's Westbahnhof, where most of the children transported from Vienna began their trip. It shows a Jewish child sitting on a valise, as he might have sat there waiting for his train before World War II broke out.

It is a very moving and human sculpture. You can see that the child is trying to be brave but is deeply lonesome and sad at being taken away from his family. Looking at it is heart-breaking, just as it would have been heartbreaking to look at the actual children in that station fleeing from the Nazis.

The second is the Holocaust Memorial commemorating the 65,000 Jews murdered by the Nazis, in Judenplatz, which used to be the center of Vienna's Jewish neighborhood. The memorial by Rachel Whiteread (2000) is meant to represent a structure made of books, with the spines turned inward so you cannot see the titles on the spines, supposedly symbolizing the fact that every life is a story and we will never know what stories these lost lives contain.

It is an attempt to be clever, a sort of visual pun. There is some visual impact because the building is cold and forbidding, but the main impact is purely cerebral, not visual or emotional. It is conceptual art, but the concept is not clear to the viewer. No one knows that it is supposed to be books or what the books are supposed to symbolize until they read it in their guide book. There is no humanity to it, just an abstract idea.

This approach is common. For example, Daniel Libeskind designed the Freedom Tower in New York to be 1776 feet high, supposedly symbolizing American independence, but  the symbolism is purely cerebral, not visual or emotional.  No one knows from looking it exactly how high it is.

The two memorials in Vienna represent two approaches to civic art: the holocaust memorial is conceptual and abstract, while the kindertransport memorial is emotional and humanistic.

The holocaust memorial was chosen by a prestigious panel of architects, and it represents the establishment's view of what civic art should be - which is why art no longer has the cultural resonance that it sometimes had before the twentith century.

The kindertransport memorial could be a model for renewing civic art in the twenty-first century. It is very different from the most conventional civic art of the nineteenth century - nothing like a general on horseback. It draws on the humanistic tradition of representational art to make a moving visual statement about what happened on its site.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

More Parking Means More Driving

It is very obvious that people are more likely to drive if they can find parking easily at home and at their destination, but I have had many arguments with people say, "People will drive anyway.  They will just spend more time circling looking for a space if there is not enough parking." I am glad that there are finally some statistical studies showing that availability of parking is a very strong cause of increased driving.

One study looks at parking supply from the 1950s to the present in nine cities (including Berkeley, California, where I live), and it infers causality by using a statistical method commonly used in epidemiology. It concludes, "At the city scale, we find that an increase in parking provision from 0.1 to 0.5 parking spaces per resident and employee is associated with an increase in commuter automobile mode share of roughly 30 percentage points." See the study (PDF).

A second study looks at residential parking in New York City.  It concludes, "The research shows a clear relationship between guaranteed parking at home and a greater propensity to use the automobile for journey to work trips even between origin and destinations pairs that are reasonably well and very well served by transit." See the study (PDF).

A third study looks at parking at residential, retail, and office uses in San Francisco. See the study (PDF). In all cases, driving is a function of both parking and of the design of the land use. It finds that parking has slightly different effects for these different uses:
  • Residential: for a site with moderate auto orientation, the absence of parking is associated with a 35% reduction in auto mode share.
  • Retail: for a site with moderate auto orientation, the absence of parking is associated with a 30% reduction in auto mode share.
  • Office: for a site with moderate auto orientation, the absence of free or subsidized parking is associated with a 32% reduction in auto mode share.
 As for the claims that the remaining drivers will waste gasoline and generate pollution by circling and looking for parking, anyone who follows city planning issues knows that Donald Shoup has shown that we can eliminate this problem by pricing parking (including on-street parking) properly.

Of course, the correlation would be much higher if we built car-free housing located in areas with permit parking - housing whose residents do not have on-site parking and are not able to buy permits for on-street parking.  In this case, the people without on-site parking would not drive at all.

San Francisco is going to act on this new research about parking. It has already adopted Shoupian pricing of parking in parts of the city.  Now, it is planning to limit provision of parking to limit automobile use.  A report by the SFMTA says about these studies of parking provision and driving:
This information comes as San Francisco is in the midst of one of its biggest new-housing construction booms in history, projected to add 100,000 households and more than 190,000 new jobs by 2040. If everyone arrives with a car, that’s going to be a recipe for gridlock and economic stagnation. The effects on the environment, quality of life and pedestrian safety will be substantial. The city will grind to a halt.

Fortunately, city officials have been planning for this growth on several fronts, including the Transportation Sustainability Program. This three-part program is designed to invest more in our transportation system, align our environmental rules with policy goals like emissions reductions and smart growth along transit, and shift choices to makes it easier for people to get around by transit, walking, biking, or car-sharing.

The growing research on the link between available parking and people’s decision to drive is part of the data the SFMTA, Planning Department, and San Francisco County Transportation Authority are considering as they work on legislation that will help shape future development in the city and provide incentives for people to get around without relying on driving alone in a car.
 I hope the idea spreads. It is the way to have smart growth without having worse traffic congestion.

Here are references for the studies linked above:
  • Chris McCahill, University of Wisconsin, et al.  "Effects of Parking Provision on Automobile Use in Cities: Inferring Causality" [PDF]
  • Rachel Weinberger, University of Pennsylvania, "Death by a thousand curb-cuts: Evidence on the effect of minimum parking requirements on the choice to drive" [PDF]
  • Jennifer Ziebarth, Tien -Tien Chan, Chris Mitchell, Fehr & Peers, "Parking Analysis and Methodology Memo - Final" [PDF]

Thursday, April 14, 2016

First Review of The Humanists versus the Reactionary Avant Garde

The first review has appeared, and it is very favorable.  Here are some quotations:

"The Humanists Versus the Reactionary Avant Garde was sitting on a shelf in my office, awaiting review, for several weeks. I was busy, and in a chance conversation I told CNU co-founder Andres Duany that I didn't know when I would find time to read it. "You have time for this book," Duany assured me.

"... author Charles Siegel clarifies the confusing world of modernism and post-modernism and connects them to New Urbanism in new ways--and he does this is a compact 162 pages. ... Whether you care about style or just want to make good places for people, the book offers useful insights--and not just about architecture.

"... The Humanists confronts a vital issue: How can architecture and design address the human needs of our time? In doing so Siegel has written a gem of a book...."

-Robert Steuteville in Public Square, published by the Congress for the New Urbanism

Read the entire review here

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Bill Gates, Don't Expect a Miracle

Bill Gates has said for years that we need an "energy miracle" to deal with global warming, so we should invest heavily in research and development of clean energy.

He explains that he saw the need for a miracle when he came up with this equation:

Total CO2 emissions = World population x Services used per person x Energy used to provide each service x CO2 emitted by each unit of energy. 

We need to get total emissions down to zero, and the only way to do this is to get the amount of CO2 emitted by each unit of energy down to zero.  Hence, Gates says, we need an "energy miracle," a form of energy that emits no CO2 and that is so cheap it will take over the market completely. 

Gates has often been criticized on the grounds that we don't need a miracle to develop cheap, clean energy; we just need current trends to continue.  The costs of solar energy, wind energy, and battery storage are going down rapidly. Wind and solar energy are already cheap enough to deploy massively, and batteries will soon be cheap enough to deal with their intermittency. Yes, it is still important to fund research and development in clean energy and storage, but it is also important to deploy clean energy on a large scale - and Bill Gates is working against deployment by saying that we need a miracle before it is possible.

Gates has also been criticized on the grounds that his equation merely repeats without attribution the Kaya identity, an equation from a 1993 book by a Japanese energy economist - an unconscious act of plagiarism. 

I would add that Gates should be criticized for taking the sort of narrow view that is typical of people who look for technological miracles.  He imagines such a dramatic solution to the problem only because he defines the problem so narrowly. 

Global warming is just one aspect of the larger ecological challenge that we face as world population and affluence grow. Likewise, the Kaya identity is just one aspect of the more general IPAT equation, which says:

Total environmental impact = World population x Services used per person x Environmental impact per service. 

Gates' equation (the Kaya identity) says we can reduce one of our environmental impacts to zero: we can reduce CO2 emissions to zero if we develop energy with zero emissions. 

But the IPAT equation shows that we cannot possibly reduce all of our environmental impacts to zero.  No matter how much we try to reduce our impact, there will still be some impact per service.  We cannot get that factor down to zero. 

For example, solar energy can have zero CO2 emissions, but it has an impact by using land. If our energy consumption grows indefinitely, we will eventually cover the entire land area of the earth with solar panels. All forms of clean energy use some resources, and because resources are finite, we cannot increase energy consumption indefinitely. 

Services also use other resources. If the world's population and affluence grow indefinitely, we will not have enough land to grow food for everyone, we will not have enough water for everyone, we will not have enough steel to produce cars for everyone, we will not have enough rare earth elements to build energy-efficient motors for everyone, and so on. 

You must define problems narrowly in order to come up with technological "miracles" that solve these problems. I don't deny the value of these technological advances, and I dearly would like to see major advances in clean energy and storage. But these new technologies are not miracles that will solve all our problems.

Our larger ecological challenge is caused by increasing population and increasing per capita consumption of services, as well as by the ecological impact per service. We should make an ongoing effort to reduce the ecological impact per service as much as possible, but we should realize that we will never have a technological miracle that reduces it to zero.  This means that we also need to control population growth and to limit per capita consumption of services.

Impact per service is decreasing, world population growth is slowing, but per capita consumption is increasing rapidly. International comparisons show that increased consumption no longer increases happiness after a nation reaches about half the current American level.  Yet nations all over the world - including the most affluent nations - are calling for rapid economic growth.

Technological advances will help, but they are not enough in themselves to deal with the world's ecological challenges.  We also need the wisdom to know when we have enough.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Politics and the Good Life

A century ago, the left's politics was based on a very clear idea of the good life: everyone should have decent housing, decent health care, decent education. At a time when people lived near what we now consider the poverty level, just giving people these basic elements of a decent life would obviously have improved their lives immensely.

But since the 1960s, most people have had these basics, so the left's traditional vision became obsolete. The left wanted to include the minority that was still poor in the general affluence, but it no longer had a vision of the good life that could appeal to the majority.

Today, the right has clear ideas about the good life, but the left still needs to develop a new ideal that is appropriate to a post-scarcity economy.

The religious right has an idea of the good life that they consider authoritative: the principles they find in the bible or in the teachings of the church. There is no room for questioning these ideas. If you want to live a good life, you must follow the commandments, period.

The corporate right has an idea of the good life that centers on money. They believe in economic growth and prosperity. This idea gives each individual far more autonomy than the religious right does: you can live a good life by spending your money on whatever luxuries you choose.

These two groups form the alliance that is the basis of the Republican party today.  It is an odd alliance, since the religious right should know very well that you cannot serve both God and Mammon.

Like the corporate right, the left has an ideal of autonomy, but it has as much to do with your lifestyle as with how you spend your money. But autonomy alone is not enough: the left says people should be able to choose their lifestyle, but it doesn't give us any clue about which lifestyle is better or worse to choose.

I believe that the ideal for a post-scarcity economy must involve developing and using our capabilities as fully as possible.  Rather than the corporate right's ideal of autonomy in how you spend your money, we need an ideal of autonomy based on how you spend your time. We need to move toward simpler living both for environmental reasons and because we would be better people if we spent less of our time making and spending money and more time exercising to improve our health, more time raising our children, and more time developing and using our talents.

The ideal of the religious right made sense in pre-modern times, when economic life was unchanging and traditional values were unchanging.

The ideal of the corporate right made sense during the early industrial revolution, when most people lived in poverty and there was an urgent need for economic growth and more money.

The new ideal of the left must make sense in a future when we have enough economically and when a better life depends on what you do rather than on how much you consume.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Modernist Catch Phrases

My forthcoming book, The Humanists versus the Reactionary Avant Garde, is very close to publication.  Here is one last preview of the book before it is published:

Anyone who cares about architecture constantly runs into catch phrases that are used to dismiss traditional architecture. Any architecture that learns from earlier styles is “nostalgic,” it looks like it belongs in a “theme park,” and it is not “of our time.”
These catch phrases get in the way of developing architecture that responds to the real needs of our time, so we should make it clear that they catch phrases are hollow.


Before 1920, the word “nostalgia” referred to a medical condition found in soldiers who were so traumatized by battle that they had a pathological desire to return to home. The word was first used in 1920 in its current sense, to mean a generalized longing for the past. The current sense became popular because the modernist movement of that time needed the word.
If you look at the writing of that time, you will see that modernists were willing to use wildly utopian models of the future, but they criticized people who used any models from the past. The best-known futuristic model is the communist ideal of an industrial workers’ utopia, a favorite of intellectuals of the early and mid twentieth century. Architects. We have seen that city planners used equally extreme futuristic models, such as Le Corbusier’s radiant city.
In reality, it is obviously best to choose on a case-by-case basis whether to use models from the past or from the future, thinking in each case about which model does the most to enhance our well-being—rather than automatically rejecting the past in favor of progress or automatically rejecting the future in favor of tradition. We should not let an empty catch phrase like “nostalgia” stop us from thinking about which model is best in any given case.
For example, New Urbanists have designed neighborhoods laid out like the old streetcar suburbs because they think it is better to live where you can walk to shopping and other services, rather than living in a sprawl suburb where you have to drive every time you leave home. But New Urbanist developments also use up-to-date heating, air-conditioning, and kitchen equipment, unlike the original streetcar suburbs, which used coal for cooking and heating and had no air conditioning.
They are not nostalgic for the days when the streetcar suburbs were built, when coal was the main fuel and when women did not have the right to vote. But they do see that we can learn some things from those days, if we think about them in enough detail to avoid what was bad but learn from what was good about them. They see that they can get the best result by learn how to build walkable neighborhoods from past models, and by using the most advanced technologies when they are appropriate.

Theme Park Architecture

Avant gardists often say that traditional architecture looks like a “theme park.” They are right that today’s traditional architecture sometimes looks artificial, when the architects are using traditional styles decoratively without really believing in them, but they do not notice that their own avant-gardist architecture also looks artificial, because they use futuristic styles decoratively without really believing in them.
They forget that the original Disneyland included “Tomorrowland” as well as “Main Street, USA.”
The modernists chortled when Disney Corporation built Celebration, Florida—a New Urbanist town was built by our most famous theme park-developer. But a few years later, we also got Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, a Frank Gehry building that looks like a shiny avant-gardist sculpture.
Which of these two is more like a theme park? By definition, a theme park is built to lure tourists with experiences that they cannot get elsewhere.
Celebration was designed as a Victorian town because that is the sort of place where its residents want to live. Its architecture is sentimental, but it was not designed to attract tourists like a theme park.
There is one architect today who is famous for his ability to attract tourists. When he built the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, its bizarre design attracted so many gaping tourists that it revitalized the city’s economy. After that success, cities all over the world wanted similar buildings to stimulate their economies by attracting tourists—and Los Angeles got him to design Walt Disney Concert Hall to revitalize its downtown by attracting those gaping tourists. There is no doubt that Frank Gehry is our most successful designer of theme park architecture—but many other avant gardists are trying hard to imitate him. 

Sometimes our neo-traditional architecture looks something like a theme park, but our avant-gardist architecture looks even more like a theme park. Most of our traditional neighborhood developments are “historically themed,” while most of our museums and cultural centers are “themed” in the avant-gardist style.
By contrast, some buildings inspired by classical styles do not seem to be “themed,” because the classical vocabulary is so central to the history of western architecture, and because the architects believe in what they are doing. For example, the projects by Quinlan Terry and David Mayernik mentioned earlier do not look like theme park architecture. They simply look like they belong in London and in Italy. Likewise David Schwartz’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville does not look “themed”: classicism is so engrained in our history that it simply looks like a civic building should look.

Architecture of Our Time

As another common catch phrase, avant gardists claim that only modernist architecture is “of our time.” But this architecture does not respond to the needs of our time: the last thing we need in our time is to ignore human values and to adopt every flashy technology purely for the sake of being new and different.
The modernism of the early and mid-twentieth century really was of its time. This architecture was appropriate to a scarcity economy that needed new technology to bring prosperity. It was the appropriate architecture for a culture that wanted to throw away any limits to progress and to build its way out of every problem.
Since the 1970s, though, there has been a change in sensibility as our culture has moved beyond this sort of technophilia.
This change in sensibility has occurred in our attitude toward food. Imagine people saying that they eat mass produced white bread and McDonalds hamburgers because they are “of our time,” while artisanal bread and food made from locally grown ingredients are just examples of “nostalgia” about how food used to be made. Everyone would see that they are wrong to think that we should decide what to eat based on which foods are modern, rather than on which foods are the healthy and tasty. And everyone would see that they are even more wrong to think this modernist approach to food is “of our time”: it actually was common during the mid-twentieth century, but we have moved beyond it since the 1960s and 1970s.
This change of sensibility has occurred in city planning. Imagine people saying that they support building new freeways that slice through urban neighborhoods, because freeways are the transportation “of our time,” while people who want walkable neighborhoods are just “nostalgic” for the way people used to get around. Everyone would see that were wrong to decide what sort of cities to live in based on what is modern, rather than on what sort of neighborhood is most livable, convenient, healthy, and sustainable. And everyone would see that they were even more wrong to think that this modernist approach is “of our time”: it actually was common during the mid-twentieth century, but we have moved beyond it since the 1960s and 1970s.
This change of sensibility has happened across the culture, but the architectural establishment has missed it. The change began to occur among serious postmodernist architects, but the reactionary avant garde rejected it. As in other fields, everyone should see that the architectural establishment is wrong to think we should decide how to design our buildings based on what is modern, rather than on how livable and how attractive the buildings are. And everyone should see that they are even more wrong that this modernist approach is “of our time,” when it is actually a step backwards to the 1950s and beyond.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Eduardo Porter's Hysterical View of Growth

Eduardo Porter wrote a hysterical article for yesterday's New York Times business section, a striking contrast to his usual careful and detailed economic analysis. What provoked his irrational response? Challenges to the great orthodoxy of our time, the ideology of economic growth.

Porter begins by saying that some environmentalists claim endless economic growth is not sustainable because the earth cannot supply infinite resources. He cites the Canadian economist, Peter Victor, who found that Canadians could slash greenhouse dramatically by cutting their work hours by 75% and going back to their living standards of 1976.

To think about Victor's proposal rationally, we should start by realizing that economic growth since 1976 has not made Canadians happier. As we can see in this graph, per capita GDP has no correlation with happiness after an economy reaches is about half of the United States' current level - equivalent to the per capita GDP of the United States or Canada in the 1960s.

But Porter reacts to these challenges to economic growth with s nightmare scenario rather than economic analysis: 

"Economic development was indispensable to end slavery. … the option for everybody to become better off — where one person’s gain needn’t require another’s loss — was critical for the development and spread of the consensual politics that underpin democratic rule. Zero growth gave us Genghis Khan and the Middle Ages, conquest and subjugation."
This age of conquest and subjugation was a time of extreme poverty. Genghis Khan's horde used to drink their horses' blood to avoid starvation, and this sort of hardship does make people fierce. But I don't think they had quite this primitive a standard of living in Canada in 1976, and Victor wants growth to continue until all the world's nations reach this level of economic comfort. In the future, wars are less likely to be waged by starving hordes than by nations fighting for the natural resources that they need for endless economic growth.

Slavery ended when technology reduced the need for labor, making made it possible to reduce workers' as well as to free slaves. Porter's talk about slavery is completely off the mark, since Peter Victor's proposal would reduce workers' hours much further, and it would not stop continued development of technology and reduction of work hours.  Even more important, shorter work time gives workers greater freedom - another step in the historical process that included the end of slavery.

The idea of ending growth does raise many economic issues that should be analyzed in detail. Most obviously, it would make it harder to pay off debts.  For this reason, it would be impossible to cut work hours in the immediate future as much as Victor proposes.

More fundamentally, concerns about sustainability only apply to growth in resource consumption.  As the economy became more resource-efficient, GDP and consumption could continue to grow - though it would ultimately grow more slowly than it did in the days when there were no resource constraints.

Yet Porter does not look at any of these economic questions. Instead, he shrieks that ending growth would bring the apocalypse. It would end democracy, bring back slavery, and cause wars of subjugation and conquest. This is what happened when there was no growth in an age of extreme poverty, and so Porter imagines that it would also happen if there were no growth in an age where every nation in the world was economically comfortable, as Victor envisions. This hysterical reaction is particularly striking coming from Porter, whose columns usually contain detailed economic analysis.

This is the sort of reaction that we would expect when someone's religious faith is challenged - and, in fact, conventional economists like Porter believe that consumerism and growth give meaning to life and protects us from evil, essentially a religious faith.

To move beyond this irrational faith, we need to think hard about the graph shown early in this post and to realize that we in the developed nations have reached a point where consuming more will not make us happier. To live more satisfying lives, we need more free time and we need to be able to make good use of our own free time.

Porter's article is at