Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Norman Foster's Upper East Side Radicalism

Norman Foster has designed a 22-story elliptical, glass apartment building as a rooftop addition to the existing five-story limestone Parke-Bernet Gallery building on Madison Avenue between 76th and 77th streets, in a designated historic district.

In response to opposition from preservation groups throughout the city, Foster said that the project was consistent with the Upper East Side's "tradition of radicalism," exemplified by the designs of the Guggenheim and Whitney museums.

People from New York know that the Lower East Side has a tradition of political radicalism, but the Upper East Side does not have a tradition of radicalism at all.

The Upper East Side has a tradition of being very wealthy, which lets it play with artsy avant-gardist projects that have nothing to do with political radicalism, such as the Guggenheim and Whitney museum.

Maybe we could deflate its pretentions if we described this style as "Upper East Side radicalism."

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Perfect Location for Frank Gehry's Buildings

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

"The Philadelphia Museum of Art has selected Frank O. Gehry, the architect famous for rambunctious and sculptural buildings such as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, to design a vast new underground gallery space, a project that will be virtually invisible from the street."

"Because Gehry will be working inside the museum's monumental stone base, he will not have an opportunity to append one of his signature swirling forms onto Philadelphia's beloved neo-classical temple. There will be no titanium-clad fins sprouting from the art museum's Kosota stone wings, no giant cylinders dancing down its famous staircase. Whatever theatrics Gehry can produce will have to be kept 30 feet below the museum's east plaza, deep inside its Fairmount hillside."


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

High-Rises and Urban Design

It is a basic principle of traditional urban design that symbolically important buildings should be taller than utilitarian fabric buildings. This is why the we are so attracted by medieval European cities where the cathedral rises above the skyline, and by Vermont towns where the church steeple rises above the skyline. These cities and towns seem coherent and meaningful because their skylines are dominated by the institution that gives meaning to the culture.

But you cannot follow this principle when the fabric buildings are high-rises. Even though the consistent 12 to 14-story apartment buildings on the main streets upper West Side of New York are generally very appealing, much more appealing than most high-rise neighborhoods, you can see that the skyline is incoherent when the apartment buildings surround a church.

Imagine, instead, that the apartment buildings were cut off at the sixth floor, as they are in traditional European cities - so their roofs are a bit lower that the peak of the church's pitched roof and much lower than its tower. Then we would have skyline that is symbolically meaningful - not a skyline of faceless boxes.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Polluting Hydrogen Economy

Hydrogen is touted as a clean future energy source: once our cars are powered by hydrogen, their only emissions will be water vapor.

In reality, there are two problems with the hydrogen economy.

First, hydrogen is not a source of energy, just a method of storing energy. To produce the hydrogen that powers the cars, you use electricity to convert water into free hydrogen and free oxygen. But if the electricity is generated using coal, then producing the hydrogen to fuel a car would create more carbon dioxide emissions than using gasoline to fuel that car.

Second, hydrogen itself can be polluting. A study done at the California Institute of Technology found that, if hydrogen replaced fossil fuels, 10 percent to 20 percent of the hydrogen would probably leak from pipelines, storage facilities, processing plants and fuel cells. Because it is so light, the leaked hydrogen would travel straight to the stratosphere, tripling the amount of hydrogen there. This hydrogen would oxidize, cooling the lower stratosphere and causing larger holes in the ozone layer, which has already been disturbed by pollutants such as CFCs.

This does not mean that we should avoid hydrogen entirely. It does mean that hydrogen is not the perfect technological fix that it is touted to be.

We need cleaner fuels. We also need to live more modestly and consume less fuel, if we do not want to disrupt the world's environment.

For more information about the Cal Tech study, see,2554,59220,00.html