Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Tale of Three Libraries


Cover for Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury
Hello Everyone:

After a rather very frustrating hour or so trying to deal with technical glitches, yours truly can finally sit, relax, and write.  Today we look at a tale of three libraries: Seattle, Stuttgart, Germany, and San Diego.  Our guide to this tale of three cities who believe that "new of the libraries' death is greatly exaggerated" is Klaus Philipsen and his July post on his blog http://archplanbaltimore.blogspot.com, "Three Libraries-Seattle, Stuttgart, and San Diego."  The literary doomsayers regularly predict that as libraries grow, the physical book will go the way of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Mr. Philipsen ponders, "Will they, like the Dinosaurs, collapse under their enormous weight and go extinct due to their insatiable feeding needs or are these big bold libraries an example of adaptation, proof that the book itself may not be dead and the physical place for knowledge is thriving?"  Citing the American Library Association "Libraries Transforming Communities" initiative goals:

LTC will help libraries become more reflective of and connected to their communities and achieve a domino effect of positive results, including stronger relationships with local civic agencies, non-profits, funders and corporations, and greater community investment in civility, collaboration, education, health and well-being.  ALA also hopes to shift public discourse away from past themes about libraries in crisis and talk of libraries as agents of  positive community change. (http://www.ala.org/transforminglibraries/libraries-transforming-communities)

Richard J. Riordan Central Branch
Los Angeles, California
As a user of the Los Angeles Public Library, I often find myself getting a little excited wandering the stacks checking out all the titles.  Libraries are fantastic places to spend time and let your imagination wander freely.  Mr. Philipsen has selected three libraries in the cities of Seattle, Stuttgart, and San Diego as case studies for how architects see the future of these institutions and respond to the challenge with spectacular new buildings, in unique ways.  Mr. Philipsen notes, "While the Seattle library became famous the world over, the ones in Stuttgart and San Diego have mostly captured local attention."  Mr. Philipsen takes a critical approach to examining all three as public projects and what a library might look like in the future.  Shall we take a tour of these three incarnations of the modern libraries?  Let us see if these bright shining institutions, dedicated to disseminating knowledge, are indeed hallowed halls of books dinosaurs feasting on bloated local pride or accurate reflections of an era described as the 'age of knowledge.

*Klaus Philipsen has omitted discussions of resilience and energy from his review because he could gain access to the necessary information.  Suffice to say the Seattle and San Diego Libraries are LEED rated silver, based on German energy codes, the same is true of the Stuttgart Library.

Seattle Central Library
Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Radus OMA

The reinvented library OMA in Seattle

The "oldest" the trio of featured libraries is the 412, 250 square foot Seattle Library, opened in 2004 at a cost of $169.2 million.  It is located in downtown Seattle, occupying an entire city block.  The library was designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Radus of OMA and trumpeted globally as a "trailblazer for innovation in library design."  No doubt, this is a very one-of-a-kind place.  The latte Herbert Muschamp, former architecture critic for the New York Times, wrote, "In more than 30 years of writing about architecture, this is the most exciting new building it has been my honor to review." (http://www.nytimes.com/...architecture-the-library-that-puts-on-fishnets-and-hits...)  Wow, such high praise from the New York Times.  Mr. Muschamps describes his first impression as "...pure bling bling: an urban montage of starburst images without a special lens." (Ibid)  He further calls it

...a big rock candy mountain of a building, twinkling in the middle of office buildings...The library's exterior is an angular composition of folded planes.  Walls are of glass, supported by a diagonal grid of light blue metal that covers almost the entire surface.  At first glance, the irregular angles, folds and shapes seem arbitrary.  The building's structure is hard to discern, and the overall grid pattern looks like a pensive exaggeration of the abstract geometries used by mid-20th-century architects for decorative relief. (Ibid)

Interior of Seattle Central Library
Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Radus OMA
Such superlatives makes one almost think that the dearly departed Herbert Muschamps was on OMA's payroll. He later elaborates,

It is pointless, with this project, to separate formal and social organization.  How people use a space is no less a matter of form than the most abstract visual composition.  As such, a building program can be subject to aesthetic articulation. (Ibid)

Klaus Philipsen quotes Rem Koolhaas's explanation to the Seattle Times regarding the standard book subject divisions: "humanities," "art," and so forth as "sad," adding:

...the point was to create a kind of single, undivided sequence, because we felt that one of the points of a library was that there are accidents and you find yourself in areas where you didn't expect to be and where you kind of look at books that are necessarily the the kind o books that you're aiming for.

Been there, done that.

Seattle Central Library Book Spiral
Klaus Philipsen tells us the "Key to understanding OMA's library design is the departure from the standard floors for various departments for various departments in favor specialized platforms, mixing areas and a continuous book spiral."  Further, in quoting OMA's own project description, Mr. Philipsen writes,

While flexibility in the library is conventionally translated into the creation of the generic floors without a segregation of programs, the Seattle Central Library cultivates a far more refined approach by organizing itself into spatial programs, each dedicated to, and equipped for, specific duties.  Tailored flexibility remains possible within each compartment without the threat of one section hindering the others.  This was achieved by the "combing" and consolidation of the library's programs and media, thereafter identifying programmatic clusters-five of stability, and four of instability.  Each platform is thus created as one cluster that is architecturally defined and equipped for maximum, dedicated performance.  Because each platform is designed for a unique purpose, their size, flexibility, circulation, palette, structure, and MEP vary.  The spaces in between the platforms function as trading floor where librarians inform and stimulate and where the interface between the different platforms is organized i.e. spaces for work, interaction, and play. (http://www.oma.eu/projects/2004/seattle-central-library)

The more I look at this schematic drawing, the more I think Le Corbusier's sketch for the domino principle, just a thought.  Mr. Philipsen reminds us that this library is not just about spatial organization, it is also about public access.  Mr. Koolhaas paid particular attention to the interior public spaces.  Mr. Philipsen cites the example of the main entrance which leads to the visitor into the lobby, described by Herbert Muschamp as, "Compared to the Central Library's soaring atrium lobby, the entrance pyramid at the Louvre looks like a gadget from the Sharper Image catalog." (http://www.nytimes.com/...architecture-the-library-that-puts-on-fishnets-and-hits...) I hope the French did not read that comment.  Mr. Philipsen speculates, "One would imagine that the Seattle library system would have used the success of this building as the bases for its 2011 strategic plan which focuses on passion, access, community empowerment and partnerships; but that plan hardly mentions architecture as a tool to achieve these goals."  In turn OMA has demonstrated that a library can be just about service.

Stuttgart Book Tower
Stuttgart, Germany
The pure form and Wesentlichkeit: Yi in Stuttgart

At first glance, this rather imposing edifice does not look the friendly neighborhood library.  The Stuttgart Library was designed by South Korean architect Eun Young Yi at a cost of $107 million for 345,000 square feet.  The library design development is born out of "the intellectual archetype of form inwards" instead of a program.  The Library references (slight pun intended) ancient models such as The Pantheon and supposedly an eighteenth century sketch by Étienne-Louis Boullée for his Newton Centotaph (or his design for a Parisian library, Klaus Philipsen is uncertain).  Mr. Philipsen refers to this project as "an exercise in rigor and one might say rigidity" as Mr. Yi attempts translate architectural essence (Wesentlichkeit in German) from history into modernity.

Interior atrium Stuttgart Book Tower
This sanctuary for books  includes a sacred-like interior atrium that appears almost empty.  The atrium is light by an oculus from above and decorated with a small water feature in the floor.  The Library is not so much a a shrine to bibliophiles as it is a shrine to purity and abstraction of the cube-the square and the rectangle as places for introspection.  On the first floor, the books appear as objects in trays attached to conveyor belts, a function that forms the main attraction in a "...shallow function zone enveloping the naked core volume on all four sides."  If a patron opts to use the stairs to look for a particular volume, then said patron will undertake a five-story hike around the atrium.  The better choice, in this case, might be the elevator tucked away in the rear part of the building through which, a patron can enter one of the top five floors dedicated to the traditional library subject divisions with a widening second atrium near the skylight.  The upper atrium, stacked on top of the lower one to form a double atrium, presents the top of the oculus and apparently, the library itself.  Here, according to Mr. Philipsen, thing look a little more happy.  There is some daylight courtesy of the receding floors and less angularity.  However, the wrapping function zone, which was perfectly logical in the contemplative zone below, now appears confusing , separating the gridded façade; occasionally seen beyond the orderly stacks.  This area was given the grim moniker "book prison" by the critical public.

The Stuttgart "book prison"
Even when the patron reaches the observation deck which presents glorious views of Stuttgart, Germany, the grim sobriquet is not quickly forgotten thanks to the heavy-handed use of steel grates that cover every surface in sight.  Some joy is found in the small cafe with full-size glass windows on both sides, presents scene of the town or the atrium.  Translating from Mr. Yi's own words, written in German, Mr. Philipsen writes, "he describes the library as a center of modern society, a monolith that can be unpeeled from the inside like an onion in which the lower empty cube is a 'negative monolith, an absolute geometrical and ordered white space for introspection' and the upper flared cube for opening to the word (knowledge)." (see http://wwwyiarchitects.com)

Eun Young Yi's Borg-like cube occupies space in a new quarter of Stuttgart, still being built, rising out of a former train yard of the nearby central station.  Despite the fact that the "Europa quarter" is not complete, at least to date, Mr. Philipsen dismisses it as "sadly sterile and suburban, so there is little hope that the surroundings will mitigate the rigor of  Yi's book austerity cube any time soon."  Meanwhile the nighttime appearance of the cube, aglow in purple, suggests something someone would want see during the day.

San Diego Central Library
San Diego, California
Exuberance: Quigley in San Diego

The last stop on our bibliophile tour is the just completed San Diego Central Library, a completely different place than our previous examples.  The Central Library is the product of a single citizen architect, Rob Wellington Quigley, FAIA, who dedicated more than ten years of his life to making this library a reality in his hometown.  Costing $184.9 million and measuring 492, 495 square feet (75,000 of it used by a public high school), in Mr. Philipsen's assessment, it ranks up there with the Seattle Central Library.  However, unlike OMA which wanted to reinvent the library, Mr. Quigley wanted to create an object of civic pride and was extra careful to design what the people wanted.  No "book prisons" for San Diego.  According to one local paper,

to a community center, it's more like a village.  There's an outdoor square bordered by a cafe and a 350-seat auditorium with concert hall-worthy acoustics.  Patrons are encouraged to check out a small office for intense studying-or lease the upstairs terrace for a rally (500 adults can stand here) or wedding receptions (there's room for 200 diners).  Poke around and you'll find a sculpture garden, an art gallery, a shop with museum-quality items.  Admire the views from the ninth floor and don't forget to inspect the dome which is really eight overlapping metallic sails.  The architect, Rob Wellington Quigley want it to look unfinished.

"Always in a state of becoming," Hubbard said, "just as we are human beings."

Interior of San Diego Central Library
At previous stop in Stuttgart, we witnessed an example of severe restraint of form, in San Diego, we have the exact opposite.  Whichever way you look at it, it boasts not only a collage of materials but also a riot of shapes, topped off by a giant dome (supposedly eight feet larger than the Capitol Dome) that cannot unify this jumble of form and material.  Exterior stairs without railings attached to the glass façade between the upper floors, imply a sense of connection; a Romeo and Juliet balcony protruding into the main reading; program auditoria for every conceivable taste; a rare book library next to the roof-top library board room.  Perhaps the most telling space is the sacred-like large reading room beneath the dome four floors high.  Mr. Philipsen tell us, "...unlike the the interior cube of the Stuttgart library this space isn't meant for introspection through withdrawal.  By contrast, this space bombards the user with impressions, particularly the fantastic views toward the Coronado Bridge and parts of downtown..."  Truthfully, the interior does not look conducive to independent work or study. The cacophony of form and material are too distracting to make any library related activity possible.

Atrium of LAPL Central Branch addition
Los Angeles, California
Three libraries, three cultures and three ways to worship books and knowledge

The title of this section suggests that books and knowledge are worthy of religious-like worship.  We live in an era where knowledge attainment is instantaneous, rendering books obsolete.  Why read a book when it is available online?  Our library tour demonstrated that the physical book form is not dead and the library, as a building typology, a place of knowledge and exchange for everyone, is still valid.  What each example has shown us is that there is more than one way to showcase books.  They also present case studies in the difference between the design competition process and community inclusion from the beginning.  Well articulated in Seattle and consistent in Stuttgart, community inclusion from the beginning in San Diego resulted in a building not well loved by the architectural purist but is a delight to its users.

Whether it is the library that put on its "fishnet stockings and hit the disco" in Seattle, the Borg cube monolith in Stuttgart, or the joyful noise in San Diego, each are
Original atrium of LAPL Central Branch
contributing to the redefinition of libraries in the millennium.  Your truly is far more partial to the architectural gem that is the Los Angeles Public Library Central Branch.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Informing The Future Through The Science of Cities


Jane Jacobs
Hello Everyone:

Cities can be great laboratories for studying a wide variety of subjects but what about studying the behavior of cities?  One of my favorite professors at the University of Southern California first introduced to me to the idea that cities are organic entities.  They are also in a state of flux.  In a recent post for City Lab titled "5 Key Themes Emerging for the 'New Science of Cities,'" Michael Mehaffy reports on the work of researchers at University College London and the Santa Fe Institute that zeroed in on some key motifs of urban systems, in the process, subverting much of the current thinking.  The results have begun to find their way into recent and future symposia such as the lead-in events for the United Nations 2016 Habitat III conference on sustainable development.  This new information is giving leaders in the fields of planning and development the ammunition in the global fight against sprawl.

Jane Jacobs at a Greenwich Village bar
In one respect, Jane Jacobs was right.  Robert Moses just rolled over in his grave.  The late Ms. Jacobs was well-known for her far-seeing insights into the emerging sciences of "organized complexity" and what they proposed in terms of a more effective strategies to urban planning-found in her seminal work Death and Life of  Great American Cities (1961).  Writing in very large bold faced type, Mr. Mehaffy states, "Today, in an age of rapid urbanization and growing urban challenges new findings on innovative urban planning confirm and extend Jane Jacobs' original insights."

Vintage aerial of New York City
Jane Jacobs was also well-known for denouncing the rear-view "pseudo-science" of fifties-sixties-era planning and architecture, which she pronounced "almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success."  Ms. Jacobs pleaded with civic officials to understand "the 'kind of problem a city is-' not a conventional problem of top-down mechanical or visual order, but a complex problem of interacting factors that are 'interrelated into an organic whole.'"  She pleaded with planners and architects to show more respected for the natural order of cities and make use of the best insights of emerging sciences together with the most practical methods.

Union Square
San Francisco
In this day and age of rapid urbanization and greater challenges to our cities, her advice could not come at more better time.  In some ways, the new findings by the researchers in London and Santa Fe, New Mexico confirm her original perceptions of cities.  The follow are the five most important by University College and the Santa Fe Institute:

Cities generate economic growth through networks of proximity, casual encounters and "economic spillover."  Another professor of mine at USC used the word agglomeration to describe this phenomena.  Simply put, economic growth in cities such as New York or San Francisco are now understood as the result of "dynamic interaction between web-like networks of individuals who exchange knowledge and information about creative ideas and opportunities."  These exchanges takes semi-public and public places such as: plazas, commercial and retail spaces that have specifically set up shop in these particular districts to cater to the clientele.

Grand Park
Los Angeles, California
Through a similar dynamic, cities generate a remarkably large "green dividend."  Michael Mehaffy reports, "It has long been known that cities have dramatically lower energy and resource consumption as well as greenhouse gas emissions per capita, relative to other kinds of settlements."  How is this possible?  Part of the reason for this energy productivity is more efficient transportation-i.e. buses and trains.  Mr. Mehaffy adds, "It now appears that a similar network dynamic provides a synergistic effect for resource use and emissions-what have been called 'resource spillovers.'"

Pike-Pine Street
Seattle, Washington
 Cities perform best economically and    environmentally when they feature pervasive human-scale connectivity.  Like a business network, cities greatly benefit when there are numerous functional interconnections.  Thus, when segments of an urban population are excluded or isolated, a city will under perform both economically and environmentally.  In the same manner, when the urban fabric is broken up, rendered car-dependent, or otherwise fragmented, the encounters and spillovers that naturally occur through agglomeration will underperform, as well as require an untenable shot of resources to compensate.  Quoting Jane Jacobs, "lowly appearing encounters on sidewalks and in other public spaces are 'small change' by which the wealth of a city grows."

Boston Chinatown Park
Cities perform best when they adapt to human psychological dynamics and patterns of activity.  Urban dwellers need to make sense of their living spaces, find meaning and order.  However, it is not a simple as that.  Mr. Mehaffy writes, "Research in environmental, psychology, public health and other fields suggests that some common attributes promote the capacity to meet these human needs-among them green vegetation, layering, and coherent grouping."  Another way to create structure and meaning in the urban environment is wayfinding and identity.  Being able to point to a landmark that is connected to a community or city is something that Kevin Lynch, a contemporary of Jane Jacobs, discussed in his book The Image of the City as a means of imposing logic, structure, and identity to a city.  Jane Jacobs put it more succinctly, "a city is not primarily a work of art."  Bad thinking for a city and art.

Multnomah Village
Portland, Oregon
Cities perform best when they offer some control of spatial structure to residents.  As human beings, we all need some degree of public and private space.  More important, we humans need to control the amount of public and private space we require during the day and over our lifespans.  The short-term solution is opening a window, closing a door, go outside, or informally colonize a space or hide in our rooms.  Over the long-term, we can make alterations to our public and private spaces-open businesses or remodel our homes-that slowly add to the "complex dynamic growth of cities.

These are some examples which illustrate just how complex cites are, "adaptive systems with their characteristics dynamic and if they are going to perform well from a human point of view- they need to be dealt with as such."  Therefore, we need to re-examine our present planning systems, "building and managing cities-i.e. laws, codes, standards, models, and disincentives" that combine to form the "'operating system' for urban growth."  To improve our cities, we need to take a more historic and scientific approach-an evidence-based approach regarding making good cities from a human perspective.

Millennium Park
Chicago, Illinois
Once again, in bold faced type, Michael Mehaffy declares, "Cities are complex adaptive systems with their own characteristic dynamics, and they need to be dealt with as such."  If we understand this statement correctly, cities are like people, with their own distinct personality traits and need to be dealt with on an individual level.  However, as Mr. Mehaffy writes, "But this is far from conventional urban practice, which too often features an art-dominated approach to architecture that values novel imagery over human city-making..."  I've always maintained that architecture is a form of art and like the nineteenth century English architect William Morris, I also believe that an object (or building can be both beautiful and functional.  However, if we are to understand Mr. Mehaffy's statement, he seems to be saying that when aesthetics are valued over practicality and functionality, they become little more than a marketing tool.  These marketing tools promote isolating features such as super blocks, walled-off campuses, and auto-dependent cities.  Alarmingly, these isolating practices are common in rapidly urbanizing parts of the world.

Penn Quarter
Washington D.C.
Michael Mehaffy reports, "Over the next five decades, if present trends do not reverse dramatically, humanity is set to create more sheer volume of urban settlement than it has in the entire previous history of human settlement."  This is alarming news for our ecology, the viability of future economies, and future of our quality of life.  We absolutely need the tools to guide us in understanding the likely outcomes and help us make changes in order to avert political, economic, and professional disaster in the near and distant future.

We human are facing a momentous challenge: finding a new way to generate creative economies and qualities of lives that are ecologically sustainable, otherwise we will usher in era of unparalleled misery.  In the face of this challenge, according to Mr. Mehaffy, "cities will be enormous contributors to the problem.  Or, if we understand the lessons from the emerging science of cities about cities' dynamic capacity to promote creative growth while reducing resource destruction and perhaps even offering the promise of regeneration-they can be enormous contributors to the solutions."

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Historic Preservation, It Pays


Savannah, Georgia
Hello Everyone:

If my in-box is any indication, Historic Preservation Tax Credit programs is a hot topic.  Federal and state historic credits are not anything new.  The federal government, through the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, paved the way financial incentives for rehabilitating older buildings.  Honestly, without any kind of tax incentive, historic preservation would still be the occupation of tea sipping, little old ladies with big hats.  Seriously though, in November the city of Savannah, Georgia will play host to the annual National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference, with the Historic Savannah Foundation and the Savannah College of Art and Design actings as sponsors.  In advance of the Conference, Kenneth Zapp, a professor emeritus at Metropolitan State University in Savannah, Georgia, discusses "The Economic of Historic Preservation" for Business Savannah.  The article does a good job of succinctly explaining why it pays to rehabilitate, rather than tear down, older buildings.

Downtown Savannah
In May of this year, the Historic Savannah Foundation held a seminar on the economics of preservation at SCAD.  The keynote speaker was the expert on the subject, Donovan Rypkema of Place Economics.  The HSF commissioned Mr. Rypkema to study the economic impact of preservation and present his findings at the seminar.  At the conference, Mr. Rypkema presented his conclusions, based on research done in other communities on the merits of preservation.  The presentation was organized into seven themes: jobs, property values, heritage tourism, environmental impact, social impact, and downtown competitiveness.

Jobs: Job generation and retention are always a key issue anywhere you go and especially during an election cycle.  According to one of Mr. Rypkema's findings, "The federal historic tax credit program invested $19.2 billion through jobs.  This cost per job ($8,868) is extremely low compared to other federal stimulus spending...."

Cathedral Historic District
Dubuque, Iowa
Property Values: Rehabilitating older buildings is a good way to raise property values in a neighborhood. For example, the city of Dubuque, Iowa offers financial incentives in the form of revolving loans, historic preservation grants, and an urban revitalization program for properties located in historic districts. (http://www.cityofdubuque.org)  Overall, homes in Dubuque's historic district saw a property value in increase greater than their neighboring communities and the city overall.  In Louisville, Kentucky, properties in the historic district appreciate about 21%, similar to the property value increase in the properties located in Philadelphia's historic district.

Jones Street
Savannah, Georgia
Heritage Tourism: Heritage tourism is not just for getting back in touch with your cultural roots.  Mr. Rypkema's study concluded that "heritage tourists stay longer and spend more.  Subsequently more people visited historic districts than went to..,golf courses."  Historic districts offer a unique way to experience a place by giving a visitor a snapshot of what a place was like during its historically significant period.  To give you an example, in the state of Georgia, "heritage tourists spent $6.147 billion, creating $262 million tax revenue."

Environmental Impact: as the old saying goes, "The greenest building is the one already built."  Mr. Rypkema's study demonstrated that "Preservation projects save 50 percent to 80 precent in infrastructure development."  Adaptive re-use is almost always the more sustainable way to build rather than new construction.

Providence, Rhode Island
Social Impacts: the state of Rhode Island has used preservation as a mechanism for affordable housing units.  Further the state found that it was an effective way to create new districts.

Downtown revitalization: this goes without saying, historic preservation has repeatedly demonstrated to be a highly effective tool for downtown revitalization.  One instrument for downtown revitalization is the highly successful Main Street Program from our friends at the National Trust.  In over thirty-one years of existence, the Main Street Program has been responsible for bringing downtowns back to life, creating 473,000 jobs at the low cost per job of $2,394, and more downtown business openings.  Another bonus, a study found that revitalized downtowns experienced more pedestrian traffic, less automobile noise and pollution.

Mansion in the Spanish oaks
Economic competitiveness: historic preservation is a great tool for enhancing the urban ambiance that millennials find so attractive, places where employees and managers want to live.  Honestly, not every building or place is preservation-worthy, proving preservation-worthiness is all in the details.  What this translates to is preservation work should be appreciated, and not just for the quaint districts.

Historic preservation provides a myriad of economic benefits to cities and towns.  Some of the benefits are immediate, others take time to develop.  It is worth the time and effort to consider preservation a viable option to generating jobs and revenue for a city.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference in November will go into greater detail about the economic benefits of preservation.  Let's hope the powers that be listen carefully.

For more information please visit:



Schools As The New Place Makers


Historic one-room schoolhouse in Montana
Hello Everyone:

School is back in session and it is a good time to reflect on educational institutions as place makers. Think about for a minute, school is the place where like-minded people come together for the purposes of exchanging opinions and information.  School is also a place where members of the surrounding community can gather for social and athletic events such as football games and bake sales.  In his blog archplanbaltimore.blogspot.com, architect, urban designer, and writer Klaus Philipsen examines how schools act as place makers in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, how they can affect urban development, and what are the obstacles.

Downtown Baltimore, Maryland
Klaus Philipsen begins with these statistic, "The nation spent over thirteen billion dollars on school construction in 2013.  In my area, Baltimore City and Baltimore County combined have earmarked over 2.1 billion dollars for their ten-year construction programs...To understand how much school systems are players in our metros, consider this: Baltimore County schools alone transport 75,000 kids every day in their own buses, a ridership that represents 1/3 of the public transit passengers of the entire MTA, buses, and rail combined."  These are impressive numbers when stop and think about it.  The City and County of Baltimore school systems spend a little two billion dollars to build or improve schools and infrastructure.  Further, Mr. Philipsen cites, "With almost 30,000 employees, the two Baltimore school systems (City and County) are by far the largest employers in Maryland."  Both school systems operate a "Combined 350 buildings, as many as the entire downtown of a mid-size city."  These nuggets of information prompt Mr. Philipsen to ask, "Shouldn't these mega organizations be considered highly important not only for education but also economic development, urban renewal, and urban space.

Booker T. Washington Middle School
Baltimore, Maryland
With all the attention public schools get: good, bad, or indifferent, schools as integral parts of urban economic development, renewal, and place making are not usually in the conversation mix.  The result, according to Mr. Philipsen, is "...schools frequently undo places instead of making them, especially when they need more room and move out of their established spots."  It does not take a lot of effort to find reasons why school are rarely, if at all, thought of as a key component of urban development.

One reason schools are not part of the urban development equation is that they are separate entities; distinct and set apart from urban development agencies. In a desire to separate partisan politics from educate, Mayors and City Councils generally have little influence over how schools are administered apart from some control over the building.  Mr. Philipsen uses the example of the capital budgets of schools.  In most cases, it is really a little on the nebulous side as to where the money comes from or for that matter, where it disappears to.  School systems seem to have a life of their own and exactly how their bureaucracy works differs from state to state; district to district.  Elected or appointed school boards, schools whose buildings are owned by the municipality, does the funding for all this come from property taxes, state budgets, or all of the above.  The whole situation really makes for a opaque and frequently misunderstood way to run schools.  Naturally, the role schools play in the urban design process is not even a tertiary the minds of all parties concerned.

Sinai Akiba Academy
Los Angeles, California
Yours truly went here
Instead of thought provoking debates on how a school, public or private, can play a role in urban development, the oft-raucous discussions center around whether or not to provide tablet computers to the students, the merits of "Common Core," how to make up for deficiencies in science and math, boosting students' self confidence, and how more physical education and better cafeteria food can fight childhood obesity.  All important issues that take precedence over the function of schools within the urban design paradigm.  As someone who has worked in schools and have a parent who taught for over forty years, I can most definitely understand all of these concerns.  Like Klaus Philipsen, I can see how the obesity issue can lead to place making, especially in my neighborhood with a variety of public and private schools; I wonder why the students cannot walk to school?

Price's Fork Elementary School
Blacksburg, Virginia
The other side of the place making story is the departure of a school from its community that it once anchored, leaving a blank space between communities.  This is part of the story of sprawl, the prominent development pattern in the post-War era both in the United States and abroad.  Mr. Philipsen shares the story of his grandfather the onetime mayor of a small town who, according to family history, boasted as his biggest achievement abolishing one room schools in three minuscule towns in favor a brand new school shared by all three on a green field reachable by bus.  His grandfather would relate on his late milestone birthdays how the town elders never tired of telling how this "forward looking man brought progress to the communities in the shape of a school kitchen, a cafeteria, and even a library..."

The above story is one example of similar stories being played out across the United States to this very day.  In the small town of Price's Fork, outside of Blacksburg, Virginia, the local elementary school debuted big, sprawling, single story educational villages located on the fields that once separated both communities.  Blacksburg took up much of the green bulwark with two rambling compounds: a Middle and High school next to each other on a parcel greater than the town center. The learning complex is representative of similar stories being played out across the county to this very day.  The educational village is a novel idea of using school as a place making mechanism because it can bring together students, teachers, parents, and administrators from smaller communities and establish a site based on common educational values.  At this point, both Price's Fork and Blacksburg have grown together, forming a collective identity in the process.

Catonsville Elementary School
Catonsville, Maryland

Sprawl is not the only detriment to community development place making.  School shootings have created a bunker-like mentality in which security concerns trump any thoughts of fostering community openness. Immigration and demographic shifts relating to the baby boomer "echo" and their children have made centrally located school irrelevant.  One example, the Baltimore County schools, plagued by overcrowded elementary schools, resorted to making a complex set of bargains in which several historic school buildings and community centers would be razed and replaced by more efficient and cost-effective new construction.  Such is the case in Catonsville and its recently revived main street, which was being threatened with the demolition of its 1912-era elementary school, the largest and most important character defining historic building of the central core.

Henderson Hopkins School
East Baltimore, Maryland
Klaus Philipsen reports, "The relationship of school and community is increasingly recognized not necessarily for  urban design but for its value to education itself."  Suffice it to say that when schools leave their communities, the relationship between the two suffers greatly.  Mr. Philipsen cites The Enterprise paper "Reconnecting Schools and Neighborhoods:

Families, schools, and neighborhoods also influence each other.  Families can reinforce to detract from school activities and schools can influence family behavior by encouraging certain educational practices within the home.  Neighborhoods can influence families by providing access to jobs, a sense of physical safety, and social networks.  In addition, advantaged families tend to select prosperous neighborhoods where other affluent families send their children to schools.  The influence of families, schools, and neighborhoods are interconnected, making it exceptionally difficult to quantify the independent effect of each on children's academic performance.  Nevertheless, all three forces clearly play a role in shaping children's outcomes. (http://www.abtassociates.com/reports/64701.pdf)

East Harlem Center for Living and Learning
Big cities present another set of challenges in dealing with sprawl.  The challenge, especially in land locked cities, is finding room to spread out.  In previous incarnations, urban public schools have been these low-slung windowless buildings devoid of any real architectural machinations, guided solely by functionality.  The result is these buildings are not exactly loved and in deep need of rehabilitation while their multi-story counterparts intended to be civic landmarks, continue to be proud bearers of community pride even if the interiors could use some attention.  A 2013 exhibit, "The Edgeless School," presented many great urban school that opened up into their surrounding communities.

Diagram of a community investment zone
Klaus Philipsen returns to Baltimore City writing, " Baltimore City, then present an instructive example for what community-based schools can be, especially with the promise of an even more community-based approach for the upcoming capital invest program, a concept that fellow Baltimore architect David Hong dubbed Community Investment Zones."  School investment zones of this nature based on the billion dollar city construction program is mainly supported by AIA Baltimore City and has yet to come into fruition through focused improvement in the communities surrounding the schools.  In an editorial to the local newspaper, Mr. Hong writes, "True transformation will require a larger, more comprehensive vision for community development that addresses both the problem of failing neighborhoods and the problem of failing schools."

Baltimore Design School
Baltimore, Maryland
The problem of failing schools in failing neighborhoods is also a major issue the the Southern California communities of Historic South Central and Pacoima; it seems as if no one wants to do anything about it.  However, as Klaus Philipsen reports, someone in Baltimore is doing something about failing schools in failing neighborhoods.  Mr. Philipsen reports that two recently completed school in his hometown can serve as useful examples: the "public" magnet Baltimore Design School, a wonderful example (if I do say so myself) of adaptive reuse involving a former garment factory funded by a private developer and leased by the school system.  The Design School serves as a vital anchor in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.  Another sterling example of schools serving the community is the Henderson Hopkins School.

Scenic view of the Henderson Hopkins School
Rogers Architects
East Baltimore
The Henderson Hopkins School is "...a brand new, state-of-the-art K-8 'community school located in what used to be the poorest area of Baltimore..." The school was partially funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Johns Hopkins School of Education; managed as a "Contract School."  A "Contract School" is a public school open to all students and operated by a private entity(es) under contract with the school district or system.  (http://www.cpu.edu)   Mr. Philipsen reports that both schools are fascinating as buildings, models for funding, and "examples of wide ranging partnerships and as trendsetters for new pedagogy."  However, for our purposes, with the aid of Mr. Philipsen's keen analysis, we can look at both institutions as exemplars of economic development and urban design contributors who act as anchors for their respective communities.  The goal for both schools is interaction with their host communities-go so far as to design in special entrances for the public to access the school even while classes are in session.  They differ from their suburban counterparts in that they are not metaphorically walled off from their host communities by parking lots and green fields.  Rather, the Henderson Hopkins School and the Baltimore Design School come right up to the street on a typical city block like any other building.

Another way schools can serve as place makers is the indirect strategy is the Seawall Development Project at Miller's Square.  The purpose of this development is providing affordable housing specifically for teachers.  The goal is to attract high quality teachers to the urban communities which have had difficulty hiring and retaining them.  Miller's Square housing ranges from rental units to starter homes for teachers and small business that serve them and the communities.  (http://www.millerssquare.com)

The resurgence of cities, growing interest in New Urbanist principles, changes in pedagogy, and the urge to create healthy communities all indicate a future where schools are once again proud beacons of progress for their communities.  Let's hope this is true.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Which Way Tysons Corner?

http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2014/08/04/what-kind-of-tod-can occur-around-dulles-metro/

Dulles Airport Metrorail Silver Line
Phase two
Hello Everyone:

I was going through my drop box folder and found this fascinating article by Yonah Freemark in The Transport Politic titled, "What kind of TOD can occur around Dulles Metro?"  The article looks at how the Washington D.C. metrorail system expanded eleven miles north, linking it to Tysons, a suburban, auto-centric business district in Fairfax County, Virginia.  The Silver Line will make this connection via the current Orange and Blue line segments through downtown Washington and is expected to serve 25,000 daily commuters at five new stations, with service every five to six minutes at rush hour and twelve to eighteen minutes off peak.  The second phase of the project, at a cost of more that $5 billion  will add an additional eleven-and-half miles and stretch into Loudoun County, by way of Dulles in 2018.  What will this expanded metrorail service hold in store for the good people along the Maryland-DC-Virginia transit corridor?

Tysons Corner, Virginia
The first phase of the metrorail expansion project is quite significant from the expanded rapid transit service point of view.  The Silver Line is the second longest rail line to open in the history of the Washington Metro. The extension and will dramatically speed up the commutes of riders using mass transit to travel to and from work and through the western suburbs.  Theoretically, the expansion is anticipated to create a revolution in the physical environment by creating a new walkable downtown.  According to Robert Puentes, [the line] "is the catalyst for the transformation of Tysons from an exclusively auto-oriented 'edge city' to [a] modern and vibrant live/work community."  This the shared goal to which the local business partnership and Fairfax county have committed themselves.  Their mutual aim is to quintuple the population to 100,000 people.

Tysons Corner neighborhood
One thing that holds true for this project is that it is creating significant new real estate developments near the four planned stations for the business district.  No doubt, the availability of an "excellent transit service" will increase the number transit commuters.  However, Mr. Freemark questions what sort of "livable" downtown will be created from elevated rail lines in the media of large roads and current built environment.

Yonah Freemark goes on to point out the difficulty in making Tysons resemble a traditional environment is not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, the neighborhood could serve as a model for a different type of urbanism-one that acknowledges the monumental scale of existing roadways and a new transit system, which added infrastructure of vast proportions to the area along with pedestrian-oriented island set apart from the road.  Mr. Freemark speculates that the city could "...adapt to its new transit accessibility by not becoming another downtown in style but by adapting its existing suburban environment into a unique new place.  If successful, it could provide a model for suburban business districts across the country."

Map of future Tysons Corner
Like many auto-oriented suburban business districts, Tysons is dependent on a few widely interspersed arteries that can be overwhelmed by peak hour traffic and extremely pedestrian-unfriendly.  These roads are simple not conducive to the standard livability concepts in the current planning profession because it makes small-scale retail and walkability virtually impossible. Sad to say, these hostile arteries are also the very same roadways chosen for the placement of the Silver Line and its stations.  Fairfax County transportation planners have placed a priority on the the radical reconstruction of the area's road network; moving it away from a community of a few arteries toward a hierarchy of streets laid out on a more complex grid.  This hierarchy would include the major arteries (boulevards) and smaller streets now labeled "avenue, local streets," and "service streets."  The smaller streets would create a more pedestrian-friendly environment at the core of transforming the city into a "downtown."  "Downtown" meaning a tight walkable grid of mixed-use buildings with street-level retail and commercial or residential spaces above.

The Tyson Plan
Currently, there are major projects underway that will include newer and smaller street that are expected to take decades to transform the neighborhood into a fully realized grid.  Mr. Freemark observes, "What we're likely to get in the meantime, given that Tysons is huge and development is hardly coordinated, are tiny areas of gridded streets, surrounded by auto-oriented parking lots and the same old arterials the area is know for." Downtowns are dependent on grids that connect them to the broader city's street grids thus creating walkable areas that make it possible to live and work without a car.  In parts of Tysons where the gridded areas were laid out, most people continue to rely on their cars to take where they need to go.
More problematic, the Metro station entrances will be located on the "boulevards."  The reason why Mr. Freemark calls this a problem is that the Virginia state Department of Transportation, like similar agencies around the United States, favor the car in their transit planning initiatives.  Some of the "boulevards" have been widened in conjunction with the Metro expansion.

Tysons Corner Station
 Progressive minded planning suggests that Tysons  Corner should be more pedestrian-friendly, more so,  there should be pedestrian areas near railway stations.  According to Yonah Freemark, these are areas that need  road diets, because they are places where people do  not need to drive.  However, Mr. Freemark observes  that Tysons is hobbled by wide roads that are not likely  to go on road diets anytime soon.  Metro planners  understand that these  flabby roads are hostile to  pedestrian and built pedestrian overpasses on both sides  of the road to prevent pedestrians from mistakenly  crossing the "boulevards."  There is a small chance that  this hostile environment would ever be at the core of a  future "downtown" because there is no accommodation for street-level walkability.  What does it mean when the areas near the stations are the most hostile to pedestrians who wish to access the stations from the street-level?

Silver Metro Line street entrance
Fairfax County optimistically addressed the issue by hoping that street-level retail enterprises and pedestrians will line up along the edges of the secondary highways rather than look at the deficiencies of retaining an auto-centric orientation.  Needless to say, given the current state of the "boulevards," walkers are not exactly flocking to partake of the semi-urban environment along the streets, particularly when they are gaps in the area's sidewalk network.  However, a traditional "walkable downtown" Tysons is not.  Even if the sidewalks are improved, the broad "boulevards" throughout the area will continue to be an obstacle to make the full transformation of Tysons into a more urban environment hard to conceive of.  Optimistically, Mr. Freemark sees the potential for an interconnected series of "island" neighborhoods.

Ovris Fly-Fishing
Tysons Corner, Virginia
Since Tysons is not likely to be a "downtown" in the literal sense, it does not mean that dense development will not take place.  It simply means that the developments of this nature will be different.  Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott recently noted:

The decision to elevate the stations-a far less expensive approach than burying them-may well presage this sleek new world of elevate plazas and public areas, disconnected from the ground.  A new office across from the Tysons Corner stations is built atop a parking garage, so that at ground level one faces a seemingly impenetrable plinth.  Already, a web of pedestrian bridges-some built by Metro, others by private developers-is emerging, keeping us safely about the world of machines and hydrocarbons and asphalt.

Philip Kennicott is describing a situation that approximates the modern urbanist concept which premises the necessity of separating people from car by placing them on different levels or designating specific areas for pedestrians or automobiles.  On the other hand, Mr. Freemark tells us that this concept is "...more recent new urbanist and livable streets movements has that the idea of separating people and automobile has failed, resulting in urban environments that are unsafe, uninteresting, and generally designed without normal people in mind."  Said movement have made clear the importance of mixed-use environments with densely spaced streets design for walkers but still accommodate the automobile.  This what Fairfax County planners hope Tysons will become.

Tysons Central 7
Philip Kennicott further notes that the physical facts of the Silver Stations stations throughout the areas imply the city's future development will mirror the modernist concept more than the new urbanist vision.  In fact some of the significant new developments planned for Tysons such as Tysons Central 7, puts forth a series of structures linked to the Metro station pedestrian bridge, turned inward, away from the "boulevards." The result is akin to the pedestrian-oriented "island" that tries to ignore the automobility of the surrounding area.  Pay attention to the fact that in the illustration of the Tyson Central 7, pedestrian activity is presented almost entirely focuses around the Metro pedestrian bridge or the interior of the plan. On the exterior of the project are the curb cut, automobile entrances, and parking.

Tysons Central 7 could produce a new district made up of distinct "island" neighborhoods separated from each other by the "boulevards" and Metro stations, yet quite walkable.  A more advance version of this idea would make the interior of this development completely pedestrian-only.  The modern movement approach to urban planning is considered a failure and replicating the element will not work.  Despite that, the layout of Tysons' roadways and Metro stations infer  that the primary streets of the communities will continue to be automobile-centric.  The complement to those spaces should be viable, interesting pedestrian-only areas on the interior of the "islands."

For suburban business districts considering remaking themselves for transit or walkability, Tysons can serve as a good model.  Some areas make eliminate large road all together, something, opines Mr. Freemark, Tysons should done years ago.  Others, like Tysons, that are preoccupied with maintaining their ability to move large numbers of car from places to place may opt to create pedestrian oriented islands, which holds the most potential.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Public Park For The Public Good


Iggy Azalea and Rita Ora
Made in America Festival
Hello Everyone:

Outdoor music festivals are a summer time staple like fireworks on the Fourth of July.  Festival like the recent Made in America Festival held in downtown Los Angeles over Labor Day weekend are about bringing people from all over the spectrum of humanity for two days of music and dancing.  Our good friend Christopher Hawthorne at the Los Angeles Times wonders in his article "Grand Park benefits Made in America but is the reverse true?" wonders if the festival was as about putting up barriers between people or breaking them down.  The Made in America Festival was a golden opportunity for Mayor Eric Garcetti to advertise his interest in streamlining City Hall, an act worthy of divine intervention.  Civic officials worked to ease the approval process for concert organizer Jay Z (yes that Jay Z) and promoter Live Nation, while incurring the wrath of Council member Jose Huizar and some downtown merchants an residents who felt left out of the discussions on the crowds and noise.

Evening crowd at Made in America
Christopher Hawthorne reports, "The festival's effect on the downtown streetscape was pretty much the opposite.  Grand Park-a 12-acre space billed as 'the park for everyone'-was fenced off, open to only ticket holders."  To secure the festival space with its three stages and room for 50,000 ticket holders, streets, intersections and the Civic Center subway station were shut down.  I can understand shutting streets and intersections near Grand Park but shutting down the Civic Center subway station?  That does not sound too logical; forcing concertgoers coming by train to take a more circuitous route to get to the Park.

The quid pro quo involved in this event was quite simple.  City and county officials get rental fees, an economic development boost, and free publicity for the park, due to its strange hillside location that makes it appear to be hidden in plain sight.  The residents and workers in downtown tolerated with two days worth of jersey barriers, chain-link, and windowpane rattling bass lines all in the name civic boosterism.  Yet, as Mr. Hawthorne points out, "...Los Angeles hasn't always been good at negotiating such deals with corporate interests as aggressively as it should."

Grand Park
Los Angeles, California
Striking the right balance between corporate and civic interests has very real and significant implications for a city that is trying to reactivate its public realm after decades of favoring private cars and private interests. Grand Park is one of the signifiers of this effort, which is still in the early stage.  The only way the decision to close the park would make sense is if the fees paid by Live Nation make the park, in the short term, a nicer place to visit for the public.  It is not a bad place to walk through or sit and have lunch on a sunny afternoon.  It could maybe use a few more places to sit and some more plantings but this is my suggestion.  Fortunately, as the concertgoers were trampling their way through Grand Park, they made an unknowing landscape architecture focus group for how the park design could be adjusted and improved.

Jay-Z performing at Made in America
The openness of Grand Park make it a suitable concert venue.  This suitability is possible despite the panned disjointedness and abrupt grade changes, especially the way the upper levels closet to Grand Avenue appear detached from the lower levels which open onto City Hall.  Two large stages were set up along Spring Street, in front of City Hall and another stage with the Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain and the Department of Water and Power Building serving as the backdrop.  This was a good idea because the distance between the stages kept the performers' music from overlapping into each other.

Budweiser Made in America
Los Angeles design firm Rios Clementi Hale Studio was engaged to combine Live Nation's aesthetic and the festival's chief sponsor Budweiser with the park's crisp modern design but fell short of the mark.  The most prominent-an angular glass and steel pavilion near Spring Street, featured a neon Budweiser sign tied to the façade and red, white, and black "Bud" balloon underneath the sloping roof.  Mr. Hawthorne observes a random haphazardly piled park signature magenta chairs and benches in front of the Los Angeles County Superior Court building.  He notes, "They'd been banished to a clear space for crowds of concertgoers or Bud-colored merchandise-or both."  In the meantime, the plantings throughout the park were left completely at the mercy of concertgoers and their overpriced running shoes.

Mayor Eric Garcetti and Jay-Z
Fortunately, there room for improvement.  The Made in America Festival highlight lingering design flaws including an obvious lack of shade.  I most definitely agree with that, considering my mid-afternoon on day one, the temperature soared to over 90 degrees and every available shady spot was taken.  This was also the situation on day two.  Temporary street closures anywhere in Los Angeles are not anything out of the ordinary.  After all, Los Angeles is still the film epicenter of the universe and to wit, Hollywood has look at downtown as one giant sound stage. However, Mr. Hawthorne questions whether or not the street closures had to be so extensive.  He does make an allowance for the Los Angeles Police Department's zealous cautiousness and suggests, "...modest changes to the layout of the festival would have allowed the Civic Center Metro station to remain open, giving concertgoers much more direct access to the festival by public transit."  While Mr. Hawthorne sees nothing wrong with closing a public park once in a very odd while for a revenue-generating event, the park should also be a beneficiary of said event.

Mayor Garcetti touring the concert venue
Christopher Hawthorne cites the negotiations that established Grand Park as a case study of how to win concessions beneficial to everyone.  Developer Related Cos. reserved $50 million from future revenues on oft-postponed Grand Avenue redevelopment project to pay for the park.  Live Nation did agree to pay $600,000 in rental fee to Los Angeles County and the Music Center, which manage the park.  The real question is how much money has been set aside to improving this flawed public and how will vanish into a budgetary nebula.

The list of possible improvements is lengthy.  Part of the original design by Rios Clementi Hale were dropped to save a few dollars before construction began.  The paving along Hill and Broadway, which cut through the very core of the park, could redone to match the rest of the park's design.  A fund could be established to add a bandstand somewhere in the park for the Los Angeles Philharmonic to hold concert, complementing its shows at the Hollywood Bowl.  This sounds (no pun intended) like a great idea.  Another idea is a fund that could help pay for public-art installations. There is a space for it, such installations have been popular in Millennium Park in Chicago.  An even better suggestion is more clear signage that could direct visitors from Grand Avenue and other parts of downtown to the park.  More necessary, new structures or thickly planted trees that could provide much needed shade.

Parks are never actually done, they are works in progress that require maintenance and upkeep.  It is not just watering the grass and pruning the trees, upkeep and maintenance means making the park more open and user-friendly to the public.  As a public space, it should also be able to pay for itself and thus, any and all logical potential revenue schemes should not be rejected, even if it means the neighbors have to put up with windowpane rattling bass lines for two solid days.