Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ouroussoff Discredits Contextualism

Respect for architectural context became a rallying cry fifty years ago, when it was used to defend historical neighborhoods from modernist architecture that did not respect their character.

But we should be able to see that respect for context is not the real issue, now that New Urbanists are changing the character of modernist developments for the better. For example, if a New Urbanist planner develops an urban code that gradually changes a strip mall into a pedestrian-friendly Main Street, the new buildings do not respect the existing context.

Now that New Urbanists are improving modernist cities in this way, certain reactionary critics who are still defending mid-century modernism have begun to use contextualism as an argument against more humanistic architecture and urbanism.

For example, in today's New York Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff criticizes Eli Broad's Los Angeles museums on the grounds that they do not respect the historic Los Angeles context of freeways and urban sprawl.

Ouroussoff begins by saying that Eli Broad does not "grasp the peculiar beauty of Los Angeles, its oddly hypnotic blend of flimsy houses and muscular freeways .... His urban ideal, to the degree that he has one, seems to be based on the Upper East Side of Manhattan or on central Paris - models that, however attractive, have little to do with Los Angeles’s sprawl." If a city is made up of freeways and sprawl, we should respect that context by building more freeways and sprawl!

A bit later, he looks at the more immediate context, and says that the design for Broad's new museum is "in keeping with the mood of the avenue, which over the years has developed its own kind of eerie stillness, especially at night, when it is mostly barren." If a place is eerie and barren, we should respect that context by designing new buildings that keep it eerie and barren!

He concludes by saying that the original proposal "included a parking entry at ground level along Second Street, which would have ... added a crucial dimension to the narrative: the interweaving of pedestrian and automotive life that is central to the experience of Los Angeles generally, and of Grand Avenue in particular, with its views onto nearby freeways. But the entrance was removed during the design process, and what was once a more complex reading of urban mobility has been reduced to something more banal." If the city is so sliced up by roads that there are no pedestrian-friendly places, we should respect that context by designing new places around roads rather than making them pedestrian friendly!

Needless to say, Ouroussoff is only a contextualist when it comes to defending mid-century modernist urbanism of freeways and sprawl, not when it comes to defending traditional urbanism. He complains that Eli Broad does not respect the context of Los Angeles because his urban ideal is Upper East Side of Manhattan or central Paris. But Ouroussoff himself supported Norman Foster's proposed tower for the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which the neighborhood stopped because it obviously did not respect its architectural context. And I am sure that he will write articles fawning on the avant-gardist highrises that will soon begin to tear up the traditional urbanism of Paris.

Though Ouroussoff is inconsistent and only advocates respect for context when it furthers his own cliquish modernist esthetic, his ideas should serve as a warning that contextualism is not enough.

When we were on the defensive because traditional urbanism was constantly being threatened by modernist projects, it made some sense to talk about design that respects its context. But now that we are beginning to transform inhuman modernist developments into good places for people to be, it is time to start talking about design that respects human nature. It is time to move from architectural contextualism to architectural humanism.

If you do not believe that Ouroussoff could focus so narrowly on his cliquish esthetic that he actually supports freeways, sprawl, and designing eerie, barren places, you can verify the quotations in this post by reading Ourossoff's article at

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Shorter and Flexible Hours in Accounting Firms

There is another article in today's New York Times about choice of shorter hours. Like the last one it focuses on worker satisfaction and overlooks the environmental implications of shorter work hours.

It also says shorter and flexible hours have the economic benefit of reducing employee turnover, but it says nothing about the effect on productivity (which I would be very interested to know). But notice that the last person quoted in the excerpt below says she was promoted to partner based on performance even though she was working part time, which implies that her productivity was high.

Some excerpts fom the article are below. The full article is available at

Flex Time Flourishes in Accounting Industry

...when it comes to respecting the work-life balance of employees, the accounting industry far outshines the rest of corporate America, workplace experts say.

Some firms allow employees to take off the entire summer to devote to their children; some let employees work just three days a week during nonpeak months. The big accounting firms generally give 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, with fathers often receiving six weeks — and that is on top of the 12 weeks of unpaid leave provided to parents under federal law.

Several firms grant sabbaticals of three or six months at 40 percent pay and full health benefits, so employees can chase life dreams like climbing mountains or building schoolhouses in Africa. And since these are bean counters we’re talking about, they’ve done the math: flexibility enhances the bottom line.

“The nation’s accounting firms excel at this for a boring, accounting reason — they’ve looked at the numbers, and they see it helps,” said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute.

Jennifer Allyn, managing director in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ office of diversity, said stepped-up flexibility policies had helped cut turnover to 15 percent a year, from 24 percent. Firms estimate that the cost of hiring and training a new employee can be 1.5 times a departing worker’s salary, so reducing turnover by 200 employees could mean $30 million in savings. Sharon Allen, Deloitte’s chairwoman, said her firm’s flexibility policies saved more than $45 million a year by reducing turnover.

Working mothers, especially, are drawn to employers that offer flexibility, although all employees want some control over their work hours.

“Flexibility is the No. 1 issue for women, but it’s also the No. 2 or 3 issue for men,” said Cathy Benko, a vice chairwoman at Deloitte. She created its much-praised “mass career customization” program in which all employees work with management to factor their individual goals and needs — like raising three children — into their career plans.
Michelle Hickox, an accountant with McGladrey, the nation’s fifth-largest accounting firm, based in Bloomington, Minn., said her firm’s Flexyear policy had helped keep her from quitting. For the last nine years, she has worked full time September through June, while taking off July and August to spend time with her two school-age daughters. She opted to do this even though she feared it would damage her chances of making partner.

But things took a surprising turn. “One day, my partner-in-charge came into my office and was adamant that being in this program shouldn’t make a difference in my goal of becoming a partner,” Ms. Hickox said. “It felt awesome.” Soon after, she was promoted to partner.
Among Ernst & Young’s 23,500 United States employees, 1,700 women and 300 men are on flexible arrangements. Women are so confident that adopting such a schedule will not hurt their chances of promotion that 25 percent of the firm’s female senior managers — the step before partner — are on flexible arrangements.

Brooke Sikes, an Ernst & Young partner in Dallas, took six months of maternity leave when her first child was born and then spent four years working a 35-hour-a-week schedule, down from her typical 45- or 50-hour weeks. The firm promoted her to partner even though she was working less than full time.

“The firm very much rewards you for your performance,” she said. “It’s not about punching a clock. It’s not about face time.”

See the complete article at

Dutch Work-Time in the New York Times

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times had a very favorable article about Dutch work-time policy, saying "The Dutch culture of part-time work provides an advance peek at the challenges - and potential solutions - that other nations will face as well in an era of a rapidly changing work force."

But the article did not mention the environmental implications of part-time work - which I would say is the number-one blindspot of contemporary politics. When this sort of article says that the Dutch culture of part-time work provides an advance peak at the potential solutions to an era of global warming and scarce resources, then change will come

Some excerpts from the article are below. The full article is available at

Working (Part-Time) in the 21st Century

UTRECHT, NETHERLANDS — Remco Vermaire is ambitious and, at 37, the youngest partner in his law firm. His banker clients expect him on call constantly — except on Fridays, when he looks after his two children.

Fourteen of the 33 lawyers in Mr. Vermaire’s firm work part time, as do many of their high-powered spouses. Some clients work part time, too.

“Working four days a week is now the rule rather than the exception among my friends,” said Mr. Vermaire, the first man in his firm to take a “daddy day” in 2006. Within a year, all the other male lawyers with small children had followed suit.

For reasons that blend tradition and modernity, three in four working Dutch women work part time. Female-dominated sectors like health and education operate almost entirely on job-sharing as even childless women and mothers of grown children trade income for time off. That has exacted an enduring price on women’s financial independence.

But in just a few years, part-time work has ceased being the prerogative of woman with little career ambition, and become a powerful tool to attract and retain talent — male and female — in a competitive Dutch labor market.

Indeed, for a growing group of younger professionals, the appetite for a shorter, a more flexible workweek appears to be spreading, with implications for everything from gender identity to rush-hour traffic.

There are part-time surgeons, part-time managers and part-time engineers. From Microsoft to the Dutch Economics Ministry, offices have moved into “flex-buildings,” where the number of work spaces are far fewer than the staff who come and go on schedules tailored around their needs.

The Dutch culture of part-time work provides an advance peek at the challenges — and potential solutions — that other nations will face as well in an era of a rapidly changing work force.

“Our part-time experience has taught us that you can organize work in a rhythm other than nine-to-five,” said Pia Dijkstra, a member of Parliament and well-known former news anchor who led a task force on how to encourage women to work more. “The next generation,” she added, is “turning our part-time culture from a weakness into a strength.”
Seventy-five percent of Dutch women now work part time, compared to 41 percent in other European Union countries and 23 percent in the United States, according to Saskia Keuzenkamp at the Netherlands Institute for Social Research. Twenty-three percent of Dutch men have reduced hours, compared to 10 percent across the European Union and in the United States; another nine percent work a full week in four days.

When Jan Henk van der Velden, one of Mr. Vermaire’s law firm partners, joined 21 years ago, there were no female partners and no man would have dared ask to work part time. Today, six of the nine partners do. It works because the lawyers are flexible — when Mr. Vermaire has a court hearing on a Friday, for example, he swaps with his wife, who is normally off Mondays.

Of the 85 specialists at the Ziekenhuis Amstelland hospital south of Amsterdam, 31 are female and two-thirds work part time. Some surgeons even train part time, meaning a daily struggle to unify treatment of patients by several doctors.

“This would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago,” said Jacques Moors, the hospital’s chairman. “But if we insisted on full-time surgeons we would have a personnel problem: Three in four of our junior doctors are female.”

In male-dominated fields, the picture is more mixed. After Martina Dopper, a civil engineer at the company Ballast Nedam, requested a three-day week in 2007, she was given to understand that part time meant no promotion.

This month, however, she was promoted. “I hope this means more of my male colleagues will get an opportunity to spend more time with their families,” she said. So far, her own husband, also an engineer, does not dare for fear of jeopardizing his career.

Dutch fathers are becoming more vocal. A crop of recent books and Web sites advise men on combining career with family. Last year, a women’s magazine, Lof, set up the “Working Dad Prize,” which went to a man who won a court case against his employer enforcing his right to work part time.

The government awarded its own “Modern Man Prize” for breaking gender stereotypes. Rutger Groot Wassink won for co-founding a campaign that promotes part-time work for men — and for working four days a week himself. “Men have been excluded from this debate for too long,” said Mr. Wassink, noting a poll showing that 65 percent of Dutch fathers would like to work less.
96 percent of Dutch part timers tell pollsters they do not want to work more; the Netherlands is that rare country where — even taking housework and child care into account — women work less than men.

see the complete article at