Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Starchitecture in Miami

There is an article in today's New York Times titled "Miami Is All About Its Celebrity Architects," which talks about new work by Frank Gehry, Herzog and de Meuron, Cesar Pelli, Richard Meier, and Enrique Norton in Miami, complete with pictures of flashy new-and-different buildings.

This article fawns over these "celebrity architects," but it makes two statements that inadvertently reveal what this sort of starchitecture is all about:

"Major developers across the country have long since realized, of course, that celebrity architecture sells. But its sudden rise here seems linked to a new level of design consciousness, an outgrowth of the now-entrenched fashion industry in South Beach..."

"Jim DeFede, a local television news commentator, suggested that Miami now relished the attention it could draw by setting its architectural sights high. 'Clearly, Miami still has an inferiority complex,' he said. 'Miami so desperately wants to be viewed as a great city, as a capital of the Americas.'"

So, starchitecture is like the fashion industry, trying to come up with something new and flashy for this season to attract attention and sell itself. And cities are attracted to this if they have "inferiority complexes" that they are trying to overcome by keeping up with the latest fashions.

It is easy to throw away last season's dresses when they go out of fashion. It is not as easy to throw away last season's buildings. When this wave of starchitecture is replaced by some new fad, Miami will be left with some very conspicuously out-of-date buildings, which will help to feed its inferiority complex.

The Times article is available at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/30/arts/design/30buil.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Pop Journalism At Its Worst In The New York Times

Last Sunday's New York Times magazine section included an article on the New Urbanists attempts to rebuild Biloxi after Hurricane Katrina, and I posted this response in Planetizen:

Pop Journalism At Its Worst

This article about New Urbanism in Biloxi is by Jim Lewis, identified as a novelist whose last article for the New York Times magazine was about soldiers on R&R in Qatar. The writer obviously knows little and cares less about urban design: he sees it as an opportunity to make clever observations about the personalities involved (the same thing that I am sure he does when he writes about soldiers in Qatar or about anything else).

He makes two substantive criticisms of the New Urbanists, both of which are unfounded.

First, he says that Duany's proposes building affordable housing at $140,000 a home, which cannot be afforded by people earning near the minimum wage. He ignores Marianne Cusato's "Katrina Cottage," a mobile home that looks like a traditional cottage and that costs less than the permanent houses that Duany is talking about. Even more blatantly, he ignores the fact that new construction is expensive: before the hurricane, people earning minimum wage could live in older houses, but now that those older houses were destroyed, nothing short of a miracle could build new permanent houses affordable (without subsidy) to people earning minimum wage.

Second, he says that Vietnamese immigrants do not want to live in walkable neighborhoods, because they came to the United States to be able to drive. Of course, he is just getting their gut reaction to the phrase "walkable neighborhood," and he ignores the fact that the New Urbanist neighborhoods give people the option of walking but do not force anyone to walk rather than driving. He also ignores the environmental issues involved in building walkable or auto-dependent neighborhoods.

In both these cases, he describes the people involved and presents their reactions to the New Urbanist plan without bothering to think about their reactions. This is typical of his focus on personalities rather than issues, which goes the furthest in his descriptions of Leland Speed: the fact that one colorful Mississippi character says he had drunk the Kool-Aid obviously doesn't mean that New Urbanism is cultish, as Lewis seems to think.

There are obviously important issues involved in the redesign of Mississippi and Lousiana after Katrina. Many people have said that this is could be the tipping point that moves American towards building neighborhoods that are more livable and more sustainable environmentally. Katrina was so devastating because of global warming, and we are talking about designing neighborhoods that will help slow global warming.

It is a shame that the national discussion of these issues is polluted by this sort of pop-journalism -- which doesn't care about the issues and just sees them as an occasion for making clever comments about the foibles of the personalities that are involved. The easiest way to be clever is by taking cheap shots at the New Urbanists, and that is the road that Jim Lewis takes.

There is a link to the New York Times article at http://www.planetizen.com/node/19882.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

How Can Nicolai Ouroussoff Be So Backward?

Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic of the New York Times, wrote an article about Jane Jacobs after her death, and I posted this comment on Planetizen. You can find a link to the original article and to comments on http://www.planetizen.com/node/19540.

How Can Ouroussoff Be So Backward?

Nicolai Ouroussoff has devoted himself to a rear-guard defense of a dying style: mid-twentieth-century modernism. Because this school has nothing constructive to say about city planning, he spends much of his time sniping at planners who are more successful. He cannot even write about Jane Jacobs without veering off into an irrelevant attack on the New Urbanists.

This attack has no basis. He says that New Urbanists in New Orleans are "tarting up historic districts for tourists, even as deeper social problems were being ignored," when the New Urbanists have actually focused very strongly on providing affordable housing (as well as on designing environmentally sustainable transit-and-pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods).

But if we really want to see how backward Nicolai Ouroussoff's thinking is, we should consider this criticism of Jane Jacobs:

"she never understood cities like Los Angeles, whose beauty stems from the heroic scale of its freeways ...."

At a time when global warming has already begun and when gasoline prices are rising rapidly, Nicolai Ouroussoff criticizes Jane Jacobs for admiring walkable cities rather than cities built around freeways!!

In Los Angeles today, they know better. Mayor Villaraigosa strongly supports smart growth with dense housing around transit stations to create walkable neighborhoods. In fact, the New York Times said in an editorial today [May 1] that we need "more efficient transportation systems as part of a larger smart-growth strategy." Why is the Times' architecture critic so much more backward then their editorial board?

This comment about freeways shows that Nicolai Ouroussoff doesn't think about how cities work in environmental terms or in human terms. As always, he thinks of cities as aesthetic objects, so he can look down his nose at anyone who doesn't share his cliquish taste.

But his aesthetic is so retrograde that he doesn't have anything to be snobbish about. The last person who wrote about the beauty of freeways, as far as I can remember, was Sigfried Giedion who wrote in 1941 about building cities at the "great scale of the freeway." In this article, Ouroussoff even tries to rehabilitate Giedion's favorite urban planner: Robert Moses! This sort of thinking was cutting edge back in 1941, but today we can only ask: How can Ouroussoff be so backward?

We live in a retrograde time. If we have an oil-man in the White House, I suppose it is not surprising that we have a freeway-man as architecture critic of the New York Times.