Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Time To Talk About Race And Justice In Design School justice-so-we-made-our-own-syllabus/393335/

Reservoir Hill neighborhood
Baltimore, Maryland
Hello Everyone:

If you spend enough time in architecture and urban design schools, you come to the realization (one of many) that race and justice are not factored into the design process.  In fact there is (are) no course(s) taught on the design, race and justice, if such a thing can be taught. On November 17, 2013, rapper Kanye West paid a visit to the Harvard Graduate School of Design, in Cambridge, Massachusetts and shared with the students his passion for architecture and his design company DONDA. Mr. West's appearance was hosted by the African American Student Union, who sponsored a social justice centered urban design conference on May 12, 2015.  Mr. West told the students, I really do believe that the world can be saved through design, and everything needs to actually be architected. (

Kanye West at Harvard Graduate School of Design
Brentin Mock writes in his article for CityLab, "There Are No Urban Design Course on Race and Justice, So We Made Our Own Syllabus," that "African-American design students well-invested in that vision as well. They find it difficult to realize that vision, however, when their instruction has been based in the work of architects whose worldviews don't give heavy weight to social problems."  Blogger would like to add, Blogger can speak from experience when blogger says even before Ferguson and West Baltimore became synonymous with escalating police tensions, course readers were devoid of essays on race and justice.  Dana McKinney, the president of the AASU told Al-Jazeera America, issues of of race are not only not discussed among designers, but neither does Harvard's Design School offer courses that consider these things together.

Layfatte Street in West Baltimore

It seems strange, especially in light of current events, that the subjects of race and justice are omitted from architecture and urban design syllabi.  In blogger's opinion, race and social justice seem to have no place in the design process.  However, one of the skills taught in design schools is problem solving and part of problem is considering all the variables, including race and justice.    Brentin Mock observes, "For students trained as problem solvers, it has to be frustrating that their profession seems to have little impact on the prevailing problems of communities of color today.  Part of the problem is that thinking about how race should intersect with design too often becomes the burden of citizens, if it becomes anyone's burden at all."

Ferguson, Missouri
Carlton Eley, an urban planner who works for the Environmental Protection Agency offers his opinion, Practitioners need to improve their proficiency with regard to working on social equity issues.  Mr. Eley also noted ...that there are professionals of color in organizations like the National Organization of Minority Architects ( who are thinking critically about these issues, but are often overlooked by the mainstream design community.

Bryan Lee, the winner of NOMA's Member of the Year award and place+civic design director for the Arts Council of New Orleans (, has been steadily working to raise awareness for these types of issues since his college years-where he divided his undergraduate time between the historically black college Florida A&M University and Ohio State University.  The subjects of race and justice in the built environment were not broached at each school.  Mr. Lee told Mr. Mock, The issue is an ideology that finds its roots in architectural modernism, which eliminates ethnocultural and even sociocultural conditions from the variables that define quality architecture...When we eliminate these essential considerations, we lose the ability for architecture to respond to the colloquial design languages of the people it serves.

Detroit neighborhood
Bryan Lee cites the accreditation process for architecture schools in both HBCUs and mainstream schools for this oversight. According to Mr. Lee,

The National Architectural Accrediting Board sets the requirements that validate these architectural programs but...they lack the representation of any group that potentially speak to the cultural variables that are necessary in the buildings we design.

This is a fascinating statement because in the field of art history, the cultural variables that go into a particular painting or sculpture are part of the discussion yet, in architecture and urban design, they seem to hold no resonance.  This seems odd to blogger because architecture, like any art form, is a product of its time and culture. Therefore, divorcing cultural variables from a building seems an at odds with the idea of architecture as a historic document.

Brentin Mock concludes, "Which means the NAAB determines whether race and justice merit any weight in the development of these emerging urban design leaders.  Still, as Eley references, there are architects who are thinking through these things."  Blogger would like to return to the question of whether or not race and justice in the built environment can be taught at all.  The answer is inconclusive.  However, there are scholarly texts available on the subject of race and justice in architecture and urban design.  If you click on the link at the top or bottom of the post and scroll dow to the end of the article, you will find an excerpt from a syllabus provided to Mr. Mock by Dana McKinney. The discussion of race and justice in the built environment is a long overdue discussion.  Perhaps the next step in designing and planning communities of color is to begin talking about in architecture and urban planning schools. justice-so-we-made-our-own-syllabus/393335/


Parker Center Los Angeles Police Department Headquarters
Hello Everyone:

One of the things that yours truly is fond of saying is "historic preservation is not always about saving the happy and victorious places. Sometimes, the places that have dark stories to tell are worth saving too."  This applies to Parker Center in Los Angeles, California, the former headquarters of the police department.  The building has been scheduled for demolition and redevelopment before it hit a procedural bump in the historic designation process earlier this month.  Adrian Scott Fine, the director of advocacy at the Los Angeles Conservancy ( wrote in a post for the DoCoMoMo US Newsletter, ""L.A.'s Parker Center: Should Buildings with Difficult Histories be Saved,"

Now after nearly six months of efforts to designate the building as a local landmark, a procedural error by the City forced the process to begin again from start.  The good news is the City has introduced a motion to study another preservation alternative that hopefully will find the right balance between preservation and ...demolition of the building.

William H. Parker
The efforts to save the former police headquarters illustrate similar discussions around the United States, as elements of growth and politics begin to merge.  Preservationists often find themselves passionately advocating on behalf of mid-century buildings with complex and layered histories-especially those "negatively associated with civil rights and justice issues, as well as those that came about through the loss and stigma of...renewal and displacement."  The efforts to prevent Parker Center's date with the wrecking ball are timely, given recent events in Baltimore, New York City, and Ferguson.  The real question is should buildings with difficult and controversial pasts be saved?  Blogger concurs with Ms. Fine and Conservancy's position that Parker Center should be saved because it is part of Los Angeles's history.  It is a document of its past and informs the future.  Here's why.

Parker Center is a building with a controversial past. Named for the late police chief William H. Parker who brought institutional reforms to the department.  Yet for all his efforts to make the LAPD a professional and respected organization, he could not train away the racist, bigoted, and misogynist attitudes his men held. James Ellroy's wonderful novel (later a great movie) L.A. Confidential is good popular culture example.  The movie takes places in the fifties during the Parker-era.  The opening scene, where the officers are celebrating the Yultide, based on the "Bloody Christmas" incident which left seven men-five Latino and two Caucasian-with multiple fractures and ruptured organs.

William Parker and Jack Webb
While Ms. Fine and the Conservancy hope that by saving Parker Center,  it can be repurposed in such a way that we can begin to address the challenges of twenty-first law enforcement and the place it holds in the history of the "City of Angels."  Ms. Fine admits,

Many people cannot imagine preserving Parker Center given the building's troubled history and being mired in controversial events and personalities.  While it encompasses both positive and negative association, Parker Center is undeniably historic.  it is a place with such significance that it can help teach us valuable lessons and empower us to face, and own, the totality of our history.

Theme Mural of Los Angeles
Joseph Young (1955) Parker Center
Photograph courtesy of the L.A. Conservancy
Parker Center was built in 1955 as an eight-story International-Style building that included site specific artwork and landscaping-elements that were important postwar additions to postwar the Los Angeles Civic Center. Originally known as the Police Facilities Building, it was design by the prolific firm of Welton Becket & Associates and J.E. Stanton with landscape by Ralph E. Cornell.  It was renamed Parker Center in 1966.  Parker Center is an example of the Becket "Total Design" approach and features art installations such as Theme Mural of Los Angeles by Joseph L. Young.  Ms. Fine describes the building, "...building's innovative design, which integrated virtually all departments into a central facility, was critically acclaimed at the as a model for modernizing the police force-as were the state-of-the-art crime labs and communication centers."  Parker Center even found its way into popular culture via the iconic police detective series Dragnet.

Street scene in Little Tokyo
Los Angeles, California
If we just go by the above stated fact alone, then Parker Center's importance would not be in doubt.  Based on its own merit,  the building has been identified as eligible for the California Registry of Historic Resources and as a contributor to the National Register-eligible historic district of Los Angeles Civic Center.  Yet, the story you're about to read of how it came to be is true. (sorry Jack Webb).

The site upon which Parker Center now stands was once two of the most active blocks in Little Tokyo.  Contained within these two streets were numerous family owned businesses and cultural organizations that served the Japanese-American community.  Beginning in 1948, the City designated these blocks as part of the Civic Center expansion plan and nascent urban renewal.  The existing buildings were razed, however as Ms. Fine observes, "...many of which would be considered historic if still standing."  The site was remade into a single superblock and construction on the LAPD headquarters began in 1952.

Little Tokyo, c.1935
Los Angeles, California
The federally funded urban renewal program ended over forty years ago, however it still remains a sensitive subject for preservationists and those personally affected.  It was not just buildings in Little Tokyo that fell victim to the wrecking ball, there were other neighborhoods, such as Bunker Hill, that suffered as well.  The forced displacement of businesses and families, in the name of urban renewal, rekindled the feeling that history was repeating itself as some of the very same people had been forcibly interned during World War II.  Parker Center's role in the history of Little Tokyo is not without controversy.  Yet, the significance of the building, within the context of the neighborhood, is not something easily forgotten nor should be eliminated.  Quoting Michael Okamura, the president of the Little Tokyo Historical Society (, Ms. Fine writes, Preserving the building is important, and not be destroy and forgotten after a life of only 60 years.

Parker Center with City Hall in the background
Last September, the Little Tokyo Historical Society joined the Conservancy in petitioning the City to support a preservation alternative that would keep the main portion of Parker Center, while allowing for expansion in the back part of the site.

The history of Parker Center has not always been a positive one-given its urban renewal ancestry.  William Parker, who oversaw construction, was one of the most distinguished yet controversial police chiefs in the city's history.  During his tenure (1950-66), he professionalized the force and instituted standards that are still in use today.  Yet, for all these accomplishments, Chief Parker's leadership was marred by rampant discrimination of African-Americans and Latinos.  This problem was brought into the glaring light of day in 1965 following the Watts Riots and in 1992 (under the tenure of his protege Chief Darryl Gates) after the acquittal of the four officer accused of beating Rodney King.

It may sound ironic, almost counter-intuitive to preserve a place like Parker Center but as yours truly said at the top of the post, historic preservation is not always about saving the happy and victorious places.  Places with a controversial history are living documents of where we were as a society. Their continued existence is a reminder of our past deeds.  From controversial places, we can glean lessons for the future.

If you would like more information about the Los Angeles Conservancy's efforts to save Parker Center, please visit their website and please help by signing their petition on  

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Architecture of "Urban Light"

Urban Lights
Chris Burden, 2008
Hello Everyone:

On May 10, 2015, the art world grew a little dimmer with the death of Chris Burden.  Chris Burden was best known for his installation Urban Lights (2008), located in the Renzo Piano-designed piazza between the Ahmanson Gallery and the Resnick Pavilion.  The late Mr. Burden first made his name as a performance artist, in the early seventies, with the piece Five Day Locker Piece (1971). His most famous piece was Shoot (1971), where he was shot in the arm by an assistant.  Trans-Fixed (1974) was his most reproduced performance piece, making its way into eighties popular culture via the lavishly produced "Wild Boys" video, by the English quintet, Duran Duran.  Rather than use this space to write an obituary to Chris Burden, Blogger would like to focus on Chris Burden's architectural sensibility.  Our guide for today is our favorite critic Christopher Hawthorne and his recent article "Chris Burden's architectural intelligence."  It is an timely ode to Urban Lights and its function within the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Chris Burden among the lamp posts
Christopher Hawthorne writes, "I remember very clearly the first time I heard Renzo Piano describe the new plaza he was planning...he wanted to create a spacious classically proportioned space stretching between the museum's new ticket kiosks and Wilshire Boulevard."  The late Mr. Burden and LACMA director Michael Govan had a different conception.  Mr. Burden had been collecting vintage cast-iron lamppost around Southern California and storing them in his compound in Topanga Canyon.  He painted over 200 of these lampposts a uniform gun metal grey, arranged them as an abstract open-air building, and named the installation Urban Light."  Mr. Govan's decision to place the work in the middle of Mr. Piano's recently finished plaza, essentially wrecked the whole piazza concept.  However, something else, you might say, something serendipitous happened: a public space that tried to ape its European ancestors made itself at home in Los Angeles.

Watts Towers and Urban Lights
Christopher Hawthorne writes, "Here were deeply familiar symbols of car culture brought together into a quasi-architectural shaped and use, without sarcasm or apology, to suggest an emerging role for the pedestrian and public realm in 21st century Southern California." While the installation piece was not an announcement that the automobile was done, what Urban Light did, at the very least, was herald "new era require new monuments."

Urban Light has become one of the most photogenic places on the museum campus but more than that, it "...has given a significant boost to LACMA's goal of activating the long-dormant seam between the museum and the boulevard."  In other words, Urban Light has become a selfie magnet, which in this day and age of instantaneous fame, seems only natural.

Posing at Urban Lights

The basic architectural nature of Urban Light is found in Chris Burden's description, a building with a with roof of light.  Investing his work with an architectural character was not an out-of-place thing for the late artist.  In 2003, he told an audience at the Southern California Institute of architecture,

Originally I was going to study architecture...Pomona College didn't have a specific architectural program, so you took physics classes and art classes, and that was considered how you got your BFA in architecture.  As time went on, I realized that I wanted to be an artist, mostly because I had worked a couple of summers in an architectural office and seemed  then to me that you had to be my age--that I am now--before you got to make any decisions.  Whereas in sculpture I could get something done right away.  So that's the path I chose.

If you examine the oeuvre of Mr. Burden's work, you can find a running theme of architecture and urbanism, with the wink/nod approach to the relationship between the structure and art-making suggested by the installation.

Chris Burden added, Also, the physics at Pomona got harder and harder and I was competing with sort the whiz kids of the physics world.  They were content to spend 30 to 40 hours on a calculus equation.  That wasn't interesting to me."

Wexner Castle
Chris Burden (1990)
Columbus, Ohio
Some of Chris Burden's work was explicitly architectural and others were more akin to architectural criticism.  One example was Wexner Castle (1990), for the Peter Eisenman designed Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio.  Mr. Eisenman clad the building in brick fragment, invoking the memory of the armory that once stood on the site.  However, for Mr. Burden, "...the brick towers were too smooth and abstract, missing crenellation and other details."  Mr. Burden added those features to the façade; a gesture of the sculptor adding architectural details to work of architecture "he found too blithely and lazily sculptural."

An exhibit from "Extreme Measures"
October 2, 2013-January 12, 2014
New Museum
In 2013, Chris Burden was the subject of a major exhibition by the New Museum (, in New York City, titled "Extreme Measures." In his initial discussions with the museum's curators, Mr. Burden said, "he wanted to the leave the galleries virtually empty and and instead hang a range of large pieces, including another collection of lampposts, on the facade of the New Museum's six-year-old building." In the final presentation, the galleries were stocked with the sculptor's works and only two pieces were attached to building's exterior.

Ghost Ship (2005) was an boat that was sent on an unmanned voyage, controlled from the off the coast of Scotland.  This boat was attached to the façade of the New Museum.  On the museum's roof was a tribute to the destroyed World Trade Center Towers titled, Quasi-Legal Skyscrapers, work with deep roots in the Topanga Canyon experimentations of Mr. Burden.

Close up of Ghost Ship (2005)
Benoit Pailley/New Museum
In the early nineties, Chris Burden made sketches for a project called Small Skyscraper, a representation of the tallest structure that could be built in Los Angeles without a permit.  Mr. Burden worked with architects Linda Taalman and Alan Koch to build a scale version of the tower and place on exhibition, 2003, at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, where it was displayed on its side; then upright at One Colorado in Pasadena.  Quoting Ms. Taalman, Christopher Hawthorn writes,

"Burden carried out" a kind of outsider architecture practice...Small Skyscraper, at its core came down to evading building inspectors.  If someone didn't like it, you could take it down and it could pop up somewhere else.

Commenting on the attraction of Urban Light, Ms. Taalman added, It's amazing the way people are drawn to that sculpture...It never stops. People are like moths, drawn to those lights.

Trans-Fixed (1974)
Chris Burden, unlike Renzo Piano or Peter Zumthor, understood that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Wilshire Boulevard were not voids, rather they are magnets.  Mr. Piano referenced the European piazzas, which offered relief from densely populated cities and the weight of architecture. Places where the city can stop to catch its breath.  Los Angeles is the opposite, we have a lot of empty spaces-mostly parking lots-therefore, an open space is not much of an attraction.  Chris Burden said it best on more than one occasion, L.A. is short on both monument and gathering spots.  For now the people, like Linda Taalman's moths, are drawn to the Urban Light.  

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Tale Of One City Split In Two

Baltimore skyscrapers
Hello Everyone:

Before I get going on today's post, Blogger would like give a big shout out to the National Trust for Historic Preservation for the mention in your tweet this morning.  Blogger would like to give a big shout to the City of Baltimore and let you all know that still have fond memories of my previous visits.  This bring us to today's post on Baltimore.

Klaus Philipsen recently posted a wonderful article on his blog, titled "Aspirations of the two Baltimores."  The controversial death of Freddie Gray and similar deaths of African-American young men following encounters with police, has highlighted the fact that despite all the careful planning and policy measures, tensions between law enforcement and minority communities do exist.  It seems that our cities are split into two.

Thames Street
Fells Point, Baltimore, Maryland
Like other cities around the United States, Baltimore has two faces.  These faces are not only rich and poor; white and black but also "new" versus "old"  The new face is gentrified complected.  Mr. Philispen writes, "...those who see new investment in Baltimore as good...the "new" Baltimore that investment brings.  Those welcome hipsters...millennials and those who despise them.  Those who celebrated that Baltimore...recently begun to shed its inward looking inferiority complex...those who mourned the loss of a Baltimore they have learned to cherish in spite of all its shortcomings."  It is a sentiment echoed in every corner, the demise of a beloved city, its history in ruins.  Baltimore has become a city, alien to its long time residents.

East Baltimore

Klaus Philispen sat down with M. Watkins, an African-American writer and and host of WYPR's Midday show, to discuss the "two Baltimores."  Mr. Watkins has expressed his dislike for the new Baltimore in an article for Salon, stating My city is gone, my history depleted, ruined and undocumented.  I don't know this new Baltimore, it's alien to me.  (   Mr. Philipsen places himself in a third category, as someone who "likes the "'new Baltimore' but doesn't think that we have enough investment especially not in poor neighborhoods."  In response to Mr. Watkins and making the argument for positive change and learning from each community, Mr. Philipsen wrote, "...And now in the de-industrialized city, depopulated and marred by abandonment, we see the bifurcation into places of glitz and others of abject poverty.[..]  Though Watkins narrative is correct, it misses one important point: those deprived neighborhoods [..] are still without any of the investments that create rapid change elsewhere.

Baltimore Inner City
Following a column by radio show host Dan Rodricks, titled "The Fragile Dream of the 'Next Baltimore' cracks," an irate reader responded in more forceful manner than Mr. Watkins.  Mr. Philipsen notes that the reader's rage had been fueled by overwhelming anger on the city streets.  The reader wrote,

The gentrified hell of The Next Baltimore is not a place I want to live.  The Next Baltimore, owned and operated by Seawall, its poor driven to the counties in favor of "young professionals [..] in the municipal ethnic cleansing game sounds like a dystopian 80s science fiction film set in the present day.
[..] this nightmarish "Next Baltimore"...[..], built on the cleansed neighborhoods and on the backs and ruined corpses of black men and women[..]

Freddie Gray's Death protests
Not long after Klaus Philipsen's article appeared and Freddie Gray's funeral, the long simmering frustration and anger boiled over, sweeping the entire inner city, from west to downtown and eastward.  Mr. Philipsen observed some of the young men participating in the melee, "For once they did not hold their heads down, did not stay invisible but looked triumphant, even happy..."  Ironically, there pride also damaged the pride of the "next Baltimore."  This begs the overarching question, "can these young men be successful at the same time when Baltimore as a city is successful?  Or maybe the real question should be, can Baltimore or any city be successful when so many of its young men are not?"

No doubt the linger after effects of riots or uprising (depending on your point of view) have created another endless round of handwringing, people groping for explanations, and opinions from every sector of society.  Naturally, the social media has had and continues to have their say.  Blogger supposes that the Marshall McCluhan aphorism, "The revolution will be televised," should be updated to "The revolution will be tweeted, posted, uploaded to YouTube, and blogged."

"Justice for Mike Brown"
Ferguson, Missouri
 Blogger does not concur with Mr. Philipsen when he writes, "Baltimore is the culmination of a whole series of brutality and death brought to young black men, either by vigilanti (Florida) or by police (Ferguson)."  That statement as a sense of finality to it and blogger does not believe that the protests in Baltimore will be a catalyst for any real change.  However, having experienced the 1992 post-Rodney King verdict riots (no other word to describe the mayhem) in Los Angeles, Blogger can concur with this statement, "Not surprisingly, the views about what happened bifurcated into similar camps as those for and against the 'new' Baltimore, not to mention those who never thought this city could get anywhere, the cynics, the racists and those who just opine without thinking."  Just as not surprising were the swift condemnations from those in power and the terse dismissals of the protests as just a means of getting attention.  The latter believed "that the entire system was rotten, guilty and needs to be fought."  They point to the widening income gap between rich and poor, not just in Baltimore but across the United States.

Post uprising clean up
Baltimore, Maryland
From these two camps, emerged a third group that quickly took control of the situation.  This group was made up of a cross section of people, who acted out of compassion, immediately took direct action, and began the process of clean up and repair.  This group held control for a week and, as Mr. Philipsen speculates, "...could hold the key for bridging the pro and anti development groups, those who benefitted and those who have not."  The city returned to its normally presentable state.  However, Mr. Philipsen asks, "But what is the longer perspective?"  Pretending that everything is status quo is unfathomable.  Even all the amenities geared toward enticing the privileged few cannot balance out the
middle class flight to the suburbs.  Blogger James DeVinnie ( had this to say,

Let me provide jus a small sampling ( of the inequality and oppression ( that afflicts Baltimore's black population: The citywide poverty rate is 25%, but in parts of West Baltimore where the riots broke out it is almost 40%.  The unemployment rate for young black men in the city is 37%; for young white men it is 10%.  Baltimore city's notoriously pathetic public schools have a high-school graduation rate of 58%, one of the worst in the ountry.  10% of the city's Black adults have college degrees, while 50% of its White adults do.  The infant mortality ( rate is 9 times higher for blacks than for whites.  The median income for Blacks is about half that of whites.  Wealthy white neighborhoods have a life expectancy ( that is about 20 years longer than poor black neighborhoods.  The youth of Baltimore face a graver social and economic situation (

Baltimore police officer playing with two boys
Klaus Philipsen writes, "Even though it is impossible to decipher the meaning and ultimate read on the events so close to the initial eruption a few less emerge pretty clearly:"

  • Social capital in poor and disinvested communities has grown since the 1960ies. Baltimore showed communities who were vested in the progress that has been made coming together in repair and healing.
  • Improvements and development in Baltimore as well as most other American cities is very unevenly distributed.  What is needed is not less development overall but a better distribution of it with more focus on affordability, access and equity.
  • Equating all developments to evil is silly.  Destruction occurred predominantly in the disinvested areas where is so terribly hard to come by.  Just about anybody who is in any way vested into community, progress is deeply troubled seeing the very things destroyed for which they have worked.
  • Ignoring the eruption and going back to business is usual may not only prove, impossible, it will also an even bigger eruption in the future more likely.
  • Bricks and mortar are not the only investment that is needed, instead there is a dire need of investment in people, social capital and a much broader social compact across all classes and races.
  • Social eruptions are never pretty nor are revolutions of any kind.  Whether throwing tea into the Boston Harbor in the fight against Colonial powers or picket lines during labor struggles, none of it has ever looked as heroic at the time when it happened as it did later in the history books.  Instead, what happened was often ugly, messy, violent and full of senseless destruction.  Only with centuries of distance do actions appear as glorious with right and wrong, good and bad neatly divided.
West Lafayette Street in West Baltimore
Whatever the reason, revolutionary aspirations are an anathema to most people who live in democracies around the globe.  Yet, one of the questions that continues to linger is , " long it could go one with the disparities within our country which grow year after year and have reached dimensions where some parts of our own cities resemble Nicaragua or Nigeria more than the USA on many metric..."  It almost seems like American cities, and cities around the world, are on the precipice revolution-when speeches give way to action.  Mr. Philipsen writes, "An advanced society should not wait until a powder keg blows but build a social compact based on incremental but broad progress for all."

The lessons of Ferguson and Baltimore are still being parsed but one thing is quite clear, change will not come right away.  More community policing and body cameras on police officers are a step, whether or not they are a good idea is for law enforcement experts to decide.  What is key to easing tensions is a holistic approach to community development.  It is not just about jobs, it is about access to those jobs-i.e affordable, reliable, safe transportation, vocational and academic training, child care for working parents, in short a more proactive approach to moving people off the unemployment rolls onto the payrolls.  This will not happen without consensus from all sides.  There are signs of consensus but only time will tell.  

Monday, May 18, 2015

What Oriole Park at Camden Yards Got Right

The main entrance to Oriole Park at Camden Yards
Baltimore, Maryland
Hello Everyone:

Baseball season is in full swing (slight pun) and the "no fans allowed" game, following the civil unrest in the wake of the Freddie Grey funeral, has brought attention to the city of Baltimore and the role of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.  Klaus Philipsen, of the blog, looks at how this young ballpark, it opened on April 6, 1992, has become the "best baseball park in the country."  Janet Marie Smith, the architectural consultant to the Orioles, meticulously guided the design and ambiance of the ballpark to mimic the oldest ballpark in the United States, Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  However, what really sets Camden Yards apart from its contemporaries is its urban setting, not set apart by acres of parking lots or a multi-purpose stadium lacking in character.  This state-of-the-art, yet throwback to ballparks of days gone by, is the shape of ballparks to come, nestled "neatly into existing and historic neighborhoods and play key roles in revitalization of urban America.

Fenway Park entrance
Boston, Massachusetts
From the day Camden Yards open, it held America's attention and continues to do in the twenty-three years since.  When Blogger visited Camden Yards, yours truly was captivated by the fact that here was this major league ballpark sitting in the middle of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, a stone's throw away from downtown.  Mind you, Blogger is more accustomed to the ballparks, removed from their urban context.  Camden Yards is a source of genuine civic pride and Oriole fans.  By 2012, the ballpark's twentieth anniversary season, its successful formula had been copied and improved.  Camden Yards also made a few improvements and renovations by 2012.  Mr. Philipsen cited this quote from the New York Times.

AT&T Park at night
San Francisco, California
Not surprisingly, Camden being marketed as the "ballpark that forever changed baseball." There is no argument on that claim.  The proof is out there at newer stadiums like PNC, AT&T and Citizens Bank Park and in Citi, Target an Coors Field.
But 20 years is a generation.  Camden Yards was a template for other teams to try to improve on.
Most newer stadiums are smaller and cozier and have concourses that allow fans to watch the action as they buy food or beverages.  Other stadiums are effectively theme parks where baseball sometimes seems like a secondary concern.  And some look to better skylines.  (

Target Field
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Klaus Philipsen writes, "From an urban planning perspective, Camden Yards had departed from the standard model consisting of placing a very large multi-purpose with 'flying saucer' architecture somewhere at the outer periphery of cities, isolated from everything, around it a huge sea of parking."  This has been the case for decades-Dodger Stadium and the Houston Astrodome come to mind.  Rather than follow form, Camden Yards used this recipe for ballpark:

  • A location directly adjacent to downtown as an aggressive attempt of revitalizing downtown with a sports venue (there was no downtown living in 1987 when the location was first selected).
  • The reuse of a fairly large underutilized industrial area that make a poor gateway to downtown (there were no "brownfields" legislation and incentives in place back then)
  • A direct multi-modal public transit connection with a new light rail line designed to open with the first Opening Day in 1992 (the new light rail line was one of only a handful new light rail projects in the country and Oriole Park was a transit oriented development before the TOD became made popular). 
  • Shared parking assumed to take place mostly in adjacent downtown garages (the term "shared parking" was also not yet in use and not building seas of parking was a novel idea)
  • Adaptive reuse and preservation of two historic structures that were integrated into the stadium design and gave the park its name (the first larger adaptive reuse buildings in Baltimore happened around 1985-87, the Sailcloth Factory Ridgely's Delight and Tindeco on Boston Street)
  • A stadium designed specifically for baseball connecting to historic ballparks such as Boston's Fenway Park ( and Wrigley Field ( in Chicago
  • The incorporation of the downtown street grid as a design element for public spaces open to everyone outside of ballgames and events (the Eutaw Street pedestrian corridor between the warehouse and the ballfield)
  • The management of design and construction through a specifically created entity, the Maryland Stadium Authority (  (a state institution still in place, currently overseeing the Baltimore school renovation projects)
PNC Park entrance
Pittsburgh, Pennslyvania
Before you celebrate Oriole Park at Camden Yards twenty-three years success by tossing "peanuts and cracker jacks," it is helpful to remember that not everyone "root, root, root(ed)" in 1992 when the new ballpark opened.  The late Herbert Muschamp and several local architects looked askance at the retro-looking stadium.  Klaus Philipsen shares his observations during the construction phase, "I watched the progress on my daily commute entering the city via Russell Street and watching the daring steel structure slowly disappear under enormous amounts of brick turning what deemed an elegant superstructure into the heavy Colosseum type masonry monument we today.  In his April 6, 1992 review of the ballpark, Mr. Muschamp wrote,

Sports stadiums are major urban investments.  along with convention centers and "festival marketplaces' like Baltimore's Harbor Place, they make up the trio of large-scale projects on which many declining older cities have stake their economic futures.
But what about a city's stake in its creative future?  To design these new buildings in retro style risks sending a message that contradicts their forward-looking purpose: that cities have no future except as well-endowed museum of their better days.  (

Coors Field entrance
Denver, Colorado
Herbert Muschamp's pointed questions were asked few years later when a new football stadium, for the National Football League's Baltimore Ravens, was being considered just a short block away from Camden Yards.  The proposed football stadium was already part of the baseball stadium's masterplan.  The big questions being, "Could a much larger football stadium use the same recipe, when it had no historic buildings to repurpose or historic urban precedents to glean its design language from?  Could a publicly funded football stadium even be considered an investment in economic development in the same way way as the baseball with its much higher usage?"  This questions can certainly be applied to the current sports stadiums in Downtown Los Angeles and Inglewood, California.

Citizens Bank Park
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Eric Okurowski
These question were carefully considered by the Baltimore branch of the American Institute of Architects Urban Design Committee in June 1996.  After much thought, the Baltimore AIA concluded the answer could be yes, "if the football stadium would just be dropped into the blank the Oriole Park masterplan had left for it, but rather would expand the vision and be used to leverage larger urban design break-throughs like opening the Middle...the 'second Baltimore waterfront.'"  A statement issued by the Baltimore UDC read,

Rendering of the Middle Branch Park
The football stadium, as a large public investment provides huge opportunities for the surrounding communities of Washington Village, Sharp, Leadenhall, Otterbein and South Baltimore.  Opportunities include providing a new gateway at the southern entry to the city, improved greenways, pedestrian and vehicular connections from downtown to the Middle Branch waterfront. The official masterplan which was created chiefly for the baseball stadium and included the area of the football stadium deserves a higher level of refinement for the football stadium area.  The current public discussion about the design of the new stadium should include the larger master planning issues which will ultimately determine what kind of civic presence the new facility will acquire in our City.  With its task force, the Urban Design Committee wants to ensure that the spirit of its Middle Branch study will be included in the plans for the new stadium and that the civic benefits are indeed maximized.  (Baltimore AIA, Urban Design Committee)

Rendering of Citi Field
Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, New York
Many of the Baltimore AIA UDC's aspirations are still unfulfilled.  While the gateway into the city has been much improved by the stadia, the result is still a questionable experience.  The Gateway has been taken up by the city's own casino that seems somewhat at odds with the site, nor are either a common sense extension of past public investment , or the celebration of the Middle Branch envisioned by the UDC.  Instead, there is an enormous parking garage right on the water's edge and the casino is the proverbial "nail in the coffin of the idea of opening the Middle Branch up from downtown, at least along this western side of it."

Oriole Park at Camden Yards
 In the years that followed the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, some of the essential elements that made it so successful were threatened.  Mr. Philipsen writes, "The glorious view from the seats back into downtown was severely curtailed by a blocky city funded convention center hotel that also buried forever another idea of the UDC, that of a great open space in front of the old Camden Station, that the AIA Committee back then dubbed 'Oriole Victory Park' and which had been envisioned as link between the still ailing Westside of Baltimore's downtown and the vibrant waterfront and stadium areas."  Mr. Philipsen continues, "A probably flawed idea of decking over the track area on the rear side of the Camden warehouse for a 'Medmart' complex failed.  Because this mega project had been on the boards back then, a MARC train and light rail station facility that would be appropriate to the prominent setting at the Yards had been design but not realized back then, and it still hasn't 23 years later..."

Despite everything Oriole Park at CamdenYards is a success at the urban design, urban renewal, architectural level.  Game days bring a lively crowd, the light rail service is busy and fans are let off a mere few feet away from the front entrance, and the historic Camden Station head has been restored and repurposed as a baseball museum and event spaces.  The warehouse is not only a lovely background to the stadium but has been readapted as commercial and retail space.  The ballpark has also benefitted the historic buildings on Russell Street which would have fallen on hard times with out the stadium.  The buildings have been converted into sports bars, used as pre (and post) game party spaces.

The lessons of Oriole Park at Camden Yards should serve as a model for the proposed football stadium near The Forum in Inglewood, California and a newly proposed soccer pitch in Downtown Los Angeles.  The success of incorporating a stadium into an urban setting in a city smaller than Los Angeles proves that with careful planning and consideration, a stadium can be a catalyst for urban design, urban renewal, and economic development.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Take Me Out Of The Ballpark

Fans locked out of Oriole Park at Camden Yards
Baltimore, Maryland

Hello Everyone:

Baseball is one of the great American past times.  It is a game filled with much history and lore: the Black Sox scandal in 1919, Babe Ruth, Kirk Gibson's game winning home run in 1988, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire battling for the single season home run title, and so forth.  Recently, baseball history was made again but not in a good way.  The recent civil unrest in Baltimore, Maryland, following the funeral of Freddie Gray, put Major League Baseball in a scheduling quandary.  Go ahead with the scheduled game between the hometown Orioles and the visiting Chicago White Sox or make it up another time.  The League opted to play the game, in an empty stadium, a first for the game.  Our intrepid architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne attended that game, reporting his observations in a short article, "Orioles-White Sox game: Baltimore's urban stadium becomes no-fans' land."  His story is a reminder of how the character of the game has changed from urban to suburban.

Empty Orioles Park at Camden Yards
The sight of a baseball game being played in an empty stadium was depressing.  In the interest of full disclosure, yours truly has never been much of a baseball fan but knows to root for the hometown Dodgers, but we digress.  The dialogue between the stadium architects and major-league sports owners has always been fraught with more tension than either side will care to admit.  Witness the ongoing struggle to build a new football stadium in Los Angeles.  Baseball used to be a game played by boys (always) in American cities. Increasingly, the game is being played by boys in the suburbs and from Latin American countries.  Mr. Hawthorne adds, "The number of African American major leaguers has declined from roughly 20% 30 years ago to about 8% today.  That growing estrangement of the sport from the black community became inextricable from architectural symbolism on Wednesday."  The allusion of the empty stadium to a scene from a movie about a viral epidemic Mr. Hawthorne uses seems apropos.

Scenes from a Major League Baseball first

Baseball is sport that is as much about tradition as it is about acknowledging the changes in contemporary culture.  Traditions such as: the seventh inning stretch, making sense of the in-field fly ball rule  cold beer and hot dogs, peanuts and cracker jacks are passed down every season from one generation of fans to the next.  One tradition that fit this mold was decision to go ahead with game.  This decision, made by the team, upon the advice of police, to play the game, not postpone or move to another city played into this lock on tradition.

Orioles Park at Camden Yards was first of a new generation of downtown sports stadium.  Camden Yards is located in Baltimore's Inner Harbor area, near the downtown area.  Blogger disagrees with Mr. Hawthorne's assessment of the stadium, "Somewhat incongruously, these ballparks tend to combine nostalgic design touches like red brick with locations  in urban centers in need of a boost in invest and tourist spending."  If Mr. Hawthorne would have spent some time in downtown Baltimore, he would have realized that the red brick fit within the context of the Federalist-era (c.late 18th-early 19th century) architecture.

Entrance to Oriole Park at Camden Yards
HOK Sport, opened 1992
 Oriole Park at Camden Yards, designed by HOK Sport (now called Populous), was a nostalgia trailblazer.  The antithesis of the bright shiny mid-century modern stadiums of the late fifties and early sixties that spoke of a glorious future.  Camden Yards was reminder of days gone by when fathers and sons would share a bonding moment while cheering for the home team. The stadium opened in 1992 and was part of a larger effort to resuscitate the Inner Harbor.

Blogger has another confession.  Yours truly has only experience the bright shiny mid century modern baseball stadiums but has visited Camden Yards. Honest impression was what a beautiful place to play baseball.  Blogger could have easily imagined Babe Ruth (a Baltimore native) or Lou Gehrig playing in a stadium like this one decades long ago.  The sight of two teams, playing the sport they love in an empty stadium was sad.  Sad in the thinking that this is not the way it is supposed to be.  Yours truly has been in empty buildings and there is a palpable sense of serenity, a baseball game played in an empty stadium was just depressing.  Let us hope that Major League Baseball, as well as other sports league, use this moment to address the disconnect between them and contemporary culture. 

The Difference Between Making Space and Memorable Space

CityWalk west
Universal Studios, Hollywood, California
Hello Everyone:

In 1999, architect Jon Jerde casually told Wired magazine, The public sector stopped making public space a long time ago.  Jon Jerde, who passed away in February, was best known for designing public spaces that were motivated by this idea.  CityWalk at Universal Studios Hollywood is one such example.  CityWalk is a privatized, outdoor, visually chaotic streetscape dressed in "neon-lit postmodernism, that leads from several large parking garages past restaurants, cafes, trinket shops and a multiplex to the amusement's park's front gates."  CityWalk was completed in 1993, a year after the Rodeny King verdict touched off days of destructive rioting and the Walt Disney Concert Hall building initiative was beginning to stall. "A little more than two decades late, there is something quaintly fatalistic about Jerde's attitude," writes Christopher Hawthorne  in his article, "Los Angeles public space is rambunctious again; let's dress it properly."  Fatalistic, not fatal, as Los Angeles's public spaces are showing signs of good health.

Tongva Park
Santa Monica, California
About the same time as announcements of Jon Jerde's death began appearing in newspapers across the country, a pocket park was opened to the public at York Boulevard and Avenue 50 in Highland Park.  It joined sister pedestrian plazas in Leimert Park, Pacoima, and North Hollywood, all products of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation and its People St Program ( Right on the heels of opening the ambitious Tongva Park in 2013, the city of Santa Monica is putting a public plaza that will be located at the base of "the final stop on the Expos light-rail line's second phase, due to start running next year."  The plaza will connect to new Colorado Esplanade, where wide sidewalks will take pedestrians from the Expo line station toward the park and the Santa Monica Pier.

Union Station
John B. and Donald Parkinson 1939
Los Angeles, California
The venerable Union Station, on the edge of Downtown Los Angeles, has undergone a makeover under a master plan by the firms Gruen and Grimshaw.  The architecture firms, in conjunction with landscape architect Mia Lehrer, are creating "a wide pedestrian plaza will replace the surface parking lot that stretches between Alameda Street and the main entrances.  There are also a number of parks and public pathways opening along the Los Angeles River, with many more to come."  More open public and green space is exactly something Los Angeles could use. However, as Mr. Hawthorne points out, "...there's a crucial difference between simply making public space-carving out room for it-and making public space that innovatively, memorably designed."  In essence, it is one thing to have a space carved out for public use and it is quite another to make it a place worth spending time.

Sunset Triangle Plaza
Silver Lake, California
Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times
 Christopher Hawthorne makes a crucial point. An innovative and memorable public is visually pleasing, useable, and accessible.  The evolving and well liked People St Program is a good example and cautionary tale of the difference between simply making space and making memorable and innovative space.  

The Department of Transportation had early success and garnered a lot of attention with the Sunset Triangle Plaza, which in 2012, shut down a section of Griffith Park Boulevard, where it meets Sunset Boulevard, (a very busy intersection) to automobile traffic.  The sound of air being sucked through teeth.  The architecture firm Rios Clementi Hale Studio "laid a green polka-dot pattern on the pavement, extending what had been a small existing park to the east and creating a photogenic center of urban energy in the neighborhood."  Rios Clementi Hale borrowed former New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan's strategy, designating the plaza a temporary project to bypass red tape.  The budget was a paltry $25,000.  The Sunset Triangle Plaza became a permanent open space-"a pedestrian mall, to mall state law-overseen jointly by the city and the Silver Lake Improvement Assn."

Rios Clementi Hale did not apologize (or make any pretense of apologizing) for "its lo-fi slapdash quality."  The now ubiquitous polka-dot has been replicated, in a cut and paste manner with minor changes, in other People St plaza.  An alley off Lankershim Boulevard, in North Hollywood, features the green polka-dots under tables and chairs.  A similar park in Pacoima replaces the polka-dots with a leaf pattern.

Leimert Park Village Plaza
Leimert Park, Los Angeles, California
The community of Leimert Park, located between Inglewood and Culver City, is "...a brown-on-brown version of the Silver Lake design has been laid across a newly closed stretch of 43rd Place at the foot of Stiles O. Clements' grand Art Deco-style Leimert Theater..."  The new public space is adjacent to the Leimert Plaza Park-designed by Olmsted Brothers, sons of Frederick Law Olmsted the designer of Central Park-finished in 1928.  The beige colored polka dots have been supplemented with new maps of the community, indicting the walkable places.  Just recently the dots were filled in with West African Adinkra symbols.  Round gray and rectangular wooden planters rim the perimeter. Mr. Hawthorne writes, "The result is a muddle. The polka dots overwhelm the attempts to mark the African American cultural history of the neighborhood, while the adjacent Olmsted plaza, long, the active center of Leimert Park's political life, is ignored altogether.

Los Angeles Civic Center
The Department of Transportation has assembled a kit of parts, albeit with limited design choices, to simplify the approval process for the plazas.  However, as Christopher Hawthorne observes, "...there are places a more considered approach makes sense, even if it means slowing the process and raising additional funds for a more comprehensive design."  Leimert Park is one such place where a more considered design would have been more helpful.  Leimert Park is a confluence of "prewar City Beautiful ambition and rich postwar African America cultural history are piled together..."

Los Angeles's Civic Center another place where a more carefully considered design is needed.  The city of Los Angeles has plans to extend Grand Park toward the south that will include a parcel of land at 1st and Broadway, across from City Hall and the Los Angeles Times building.  To date, no plan details have been released.  In 2000, the city intended to build a civic park on the former Caltrans site (1st, Spring, Main, and 2nd streets), across from City Hall.  However, the Los Angeles Police Department decided that it would be better suited for its new headquarters.  Redemption for this missed opportunity is at hand.

Grand Park at night
Rios Clementi Hale Studio
As Downtown Los Angeles continues to return to the land of the living, a golden opportunity exists to design a the kind of public space, Los Angeles has always deserved, on flat parcel of land in the epicenter of the Civic Center.  This public space will also have " complement the energetic, color Rios Clementi Hale design for Grand Park as well as a diverse architectural context that is dominated by the City Hall tower but will also soon include a large federal courthouse by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill..."  This where the example of Jon Jerde's work is relevant.  The late Mr. Jerde described his methodology as nothing less than building a profit-generating civic sphere on private land, assembling a new commercial city, coming out of, what the architect described in the nineties, the current disarray.

Universal Studios CityWalk
Los Angeles, California

Christopher Hawthorne returns to CityWalk as an example of this philosophy.  He writes, "CityWalk, as a product of that philosophy, still has an undeniable energy.  (Herbert Muschamp was right when he wrote in 1993 in the New York Times that Jerde's design was too rich a subject to toss away in a snit...)  Jon Jerde also assumed a cynical about Los Angeles: "that the city's public realm was not just in trouble but beyond saving."

In truth, Leimert Park makes clear the fact that Los Angeles has a rich history of exciting prewar public design.  This wonderful legacy was clouded by the emphasis on the privatization of public space in the postwar era.  CityWalk, sitting atop a hill removed from the unruly masses, is a production of this policy.  Now, Los Angeles is ready to reclaim the public sphere.  The key to successfully repairing and reclaiming public space is, according to Mr. Hawthorne, " realize that many of the parks and plazas we're adding are both products of contemporary culture and strategies for rediscovering what came before (or extending what's nearby).  Their design should reflect that; the disarray, instead of an excuse for abandoning the public realm, can be an inspiration for reconstructing it."

What Christopher Hawthorne is getting at is, instead of just cut and pasting design elements or simply pastisching period architecture, it is time for Los Angeles to take a bolder more innovative approach to public space.  Modern day Los Angeles is layered messy place (something a certain Swiss architect does not understand) and instead of sanitizing the public realm and removing it from the chaos, the architecture should be inspired and revel in it.  The challenge will be to take the disarray and make it something coherent.