Posts Tagged ‘Urbanism’

Levittown / Los Angeles: Excerpted musings on spatial context

In Excerpts, Thoughts on June 14, 2011 at 10:18 am

My only experience with Los Angeles was during a week-long stretch of alternating rain and drizzle. The sun took a leave of absence and the low, omnipresent rain clouds went wild, cased the joint. It was December and, oddly, it felt like it. Because of this, I don’t feel like I really know the place. But today I finished an essay by Michael Maltzan about LA—its architectural fabric and spatial context. The essay was actually an excerpt from the introduction to a new book by Maltzan and edited by Jessica Varner called No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond. It’s not about Maltzan’s work but rather where his work occurs, illustrated through the arresting architectural photography of the well-known Iwan Baan.

Here are some excerpts from the excerpt:

“I was drawn to Los Angeles because it seemed real — perhaps the most real place I had ever known or been exposed to in my life. Multiple cultures and landscapes emerged through the light of the overexposed horizon in flashes of contradiction: fertile and arid, dark and blinding, restrictive and generous — spaces ripe with inconsistency. At first, my reaction to Los Angeles was the opposite of the reaction of most people, who find the relentlessness frightening, numbing or overwhelming. Instead, the sprawling, horizontal city-plane; the peculiar, verdant confusions of nature and garden; the mineral-like opacity of the light; and the constant pace of movement were eerily familiar and comfortable. Los Angeles felt like home.”

I loved the next part because of its absolute otherness. Having an architectural awakening growing up in Levittown? This inaugural icon of mass-produced, post-war suburbs?

Subtle qualities and diverse, ambient experiences stood out in the repetitious and seemingly monochromatic Levittown landscape. I found order and connective threads in the subtly shifting patterns across the façades of the tract houses, the calculated variations of shingle types, the periodic blooms of wild weeds in the storm sumps, the intense light in a place with immature trees, and the landscape of the in-between.”

Maltzan also explores the culture of LA, describing the experience of living in the city as being part of “a nocturnal workshop where the constant experiments leave no time to tidy up and reset the data in order to start fresh in the morning. In Los Angeles, you are both the experiment and the scientist.”

Finally he arrives at a design prescription for the city as it exists right now:

“From Los Angeles’s inception, the city has defined itself by its ability to continuously push the outer edges farther and farther out. Our temperament of expansion, which is tangent to Western thoughts of manifest destiny, resulted in disposable built landscapes and a defined horizon of endless development. The remaining artifact is both the iconic image of Los Angeles and the poster child for arguments about late-capitalist sprawl cities. Now the bounding perimeter of the city has been hit, and perceptual, psychological and physical limits of what it means to be in Los Angeles have arrived. … Architects, urban theorists, landscape architects, designers, planners and city leaders [must] produce forms that represent this city and its culture, as opposed to importing other urban models. Those models will not work in Los Angeles. They will eventually wither in the hard light that outlives all forms here — because only Los Angeles is Los Angeles.”

All photos by Iwan Baan.

COLLECTED: Two Guns, Ice Wall, Grand Large District, Peter Bynum

In Excerpts on April 18, 2011 at 12:31 pm


DUNKIRK, FRANCE — “The Grand Large district lies in a special urban context: between the city and the sea, between seaside resort aesthetic and port aesthetic, and between residential and communal. It prolongs the overall strategy of the Neptune project, launched in 1991, which aims to orient the city back towards the docks. This transformation of the urban centre has already been broadly achieved. The Grand Large district marks the start of the second phase of Operation Neptune.”Arch Daily, Photos: Stephane Chalmeau

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TWO GUNS, AZ — “Two Guns is an abandoned town off old Route 66 in Arizona. It died in the 1960s when I-40 passed it by. I’m thinking about living there someday.” —James Reeves

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HUDSON RIVER VALLEY, NY — “[Peter] Bynum uses glass as his canvas, following stints with Mylar and Plexiglass, often in multiples where more light can be trapped between layers. The viewer can even use a remote control dimmer to change the level of lighting in some of these illuminated paintings. Everything is Illuminated runs through April 30, 2011 at Bridge Gallery in New York.” —Moco Loco

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CAMBRIDGE, MA — “As part of the Festival of Arts, Science and Technology earlier this spring at MIT, third-year architecture student Yushiro Okamoto designed and built IceWall, a temporary installation facing the Charles River. IceWall is a series of frozen blocks embedded with seeds and stacked on top of each other in a curving spine. As winter turned to spring, the wall would melt into the grass leaving seeds behind to germinate and bloom.”Bridgette Meinhold

Shrinking ourselves—and our animals—for space travel

In Excerpts, Thoughts on March 25, 2011 at 10:47 am

Some animals would be terrifying if they were any bigger than they are. A 7-foot praying mantis, for instance. Or a 2-ton frog. But making big animals small immediately renders them adorable. I fell in love a long time ago with the idea of a cow the size of a Scottish terrier. Or a triceratops the size of a rabbit.

Now, in the surprisingly silly world of serious science, a few researchers are exploring the idea of shrinking both humans and our livestock, not to make them cuter but for more practical applications. Donald Platt, of the Florida Institute for Technology:

If we can make livestock smaller we can take some with us and then have them available at our new home, perhaps on Mars. It may even be possible to modify ourselves and make humanity smaller. This would be very beneficial for space travel where mass and volume are limited, and a surface base on another planet where gravity is less and resources are scarce.

GOOD’s Food Hub explores this idea’s implication on food, and mentions a project by Arne Hendriks called The Incredible Shrinking Man. Part of it is a restaurant concept called The Disproportionate Restaurant.

We have already established that you would only need one coffee bean for an espresso and one chicken could feed up to a hundred people. To better understand what that means we’re planning to roast an entire ostrich carcass as if it were a chicken.

Our built environment would obviously be affected. At 50 cm (19.7 inches), existing structures would all seem like skyscrapers; distances would stretch out—walking a couple of miles would suddenly be quite formidable. The meaning of “human-scale” would change. Eventually, though we’d be limited in strength and speed, our new size would open up new ways to organize cities, perhaps building urban passageways around and through the now abandoned (or maybe retrofitted) structures. Perhaps a 30-story building would become a 90-story building, as each floor was divided into three.

If not all animals shrunk with us, and I don’t see how they could be, the natural environment would pose problems too. Coyotes, hawks, rats, stray dogs. We’d still be bigger than a praying mantis, but some of these others would become slightly harder to deal with.

As we’ll shrink, our environment and everything in it will appear a lot larger. The fear of large animals and objects is called megalophobia. Shrinking mankind could involve a growth in the number of megalophobiacs, especially in relation to other creatures.

Then there’s the issue of the brain.

And the brain would have to function at slightly under 30 grams (and not with the 1400 grams we have at present). That’s about the size of a cat brain. No need to stress the fact that we’ll need to find a solution for that one.

It’s probably important to note that while this is enjoyable to explore, I don’t support any efforts to actually genetically modify human beings; history teaches us that our idealistic, technological fixes usually backfire significantly. It is interesting to note, however, that the built environment has been retrofitted for little people before—in Ypsilanti, Michigan. During World War II.


Last image by Robert Therrien.

Genuine vs. superficial

In Excerpts on March 14, 2011 at 11:27 am

I’m apparently craving a new book, despite the fact that I’m waist-deep in The Instructions. I already wrote about new books on read::zebra, but here I go again. [Note my increasing brevity.]

Book One: Fast-Forward Urbanism, by Dana Cuff & Roger Sherman

From Princeton Architectural Press:

For them, the future of the American city lies not in modernism’s large-scale master plans or new urbanism’s nostalgic community planning. Instead, they favor working with the realities of urban space, finding hidden opportunities in what already exists in our cities.

Book Two: Reveal, by Jeanne Gang

A compendium of recent work from Studio Gang Architects. My interest in this one is purely superficial. As my friend wrote to me about five seconds ago, “Don’t judge a book by its contents.”

New kids on the block

In Excerpts on February 2, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Art by Carl Wiens

A rising tide of urban thinkers—indeed some who’ve recently come into power at Harvard’s design school—are advocating for a new way of approaching things. They’re calling it “landscape urbanism”:

At the heart of the landscape urbanist agenda is the notion that the most important part of city planning is not the arrangement of buildings, but the natural landscape upon which those buildings stand. Proponents envision weaving nature and city together into a new hybrid that functions like a living ecosystem. And instead of pushing people closer together in service of achieving density, as New Urbanism advocates, landscape urbanism allows for the possibility of an environmentally friendly future that includes spacious suburbs, and doesn’t demand that Americans stop driving their convenient cars. Americans have decided how they want to live, they argue, and the job of urban designers is to intelligently accommodate them while finding ways to protect the environment.

The underlying argument between the groups goes beyond the relative merits of density, or the question of whether you should start a planning project with the buildings or with the watershed. It’s an argument about whether human beings should adapt to the conditions in which they find themselves, or try to change them. Is sprawl inevitable, or isn’t it? At what point does it make sense to come to terms with it and try to find pragmatic, incremental solutions that don’t rely on any paradigmatic cultural shift?

Read the full Boston Globe story before you make up your mind. But after you do,  I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this.

Consider that an open call.

When the feet roam, so do our minds

In Excerpts, Thoughts on January 1, 2011 at 12:31 am

Wendell Berry, Steven Johnson, Will Self, and Geoff Nicholson inhabit very different spheres.

(The first is a Christian and agrarian thinker born in 1934, the second a Wired contributor and ideas expert born in 1968, the third and fourth Brits who were born 8 years apart in the late fifties/early sixties and have made names for themselves as writers.)

Yet they all agree on the value of walking.

Nicholson, in the introduction to his correspondence with Self in The Believer, writes:

While living in London and New York, two of the great walking cities, I’d walked every day as a way of getting around, and as a means of urban exploration. Later, when I settled in L.A., a city where nobody walks, I continued to walk as best I could, but it was an effort, a deliberate decision to go against the prevailing culture. It seemed unnatural, an act of protest or eccentricity, but I wasn’t protesting anything and didn’t want to be willfully eccentric. I just wanted to walk.

Berry uses walking as an example of how enormous problems require small, simple solutions, which are often wondrously pragmatic:

“If a city-dweller walks…to work, he has found the simplest solution to his transportation problem—and at the same time he is reducing pollution, reducing the waste of natural resources, reducing the public expenditure for traffic control, saving his money, and improving his health.”

The body is not the only thing improved by a long walk. Johnson, in his 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, explains a less noticeable benefit to regular walks. His main idea rests on the fact that ideas come when the brain is allowed to put things together in novel ways. And how do you do this?

“One way is to go for a walk. The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. The…stroll removes you from the task-based focus of modern life—paying bills, answering e-mail, helping kids with homework—and deposits you in a more associate state.”

And then Self, responding to Nicholson’s questions about whether walking can be addicting, like drugs (with which Self has significant experience), offers perhaps the most intriguing view of the pedestrian way:

“I have to concede that the 4/4 rhythm, the sense I have on long walks—both urban and rural—of being rather disembodied: a head floating above the ground; the meditational aspect, whereby I allow my mind to “slip its gears”—all of these do seem akin to the kind of altered experience I sought in drugs. The bizarre thing is that while walking can produce these effects more reliably, I don’t feel driven to it too compulsively… yet.”

Tellingly, Self’s description alludes to Johnson’s assertion that our mind “slips its gears” while out walking, is allowed to roam as we ourselves roam.

Unfortunately, I’m currently in Hawaii, and unable to walk to my next destination: Chicago. But rest assured, though winter is in full force there, I’ll be out for a stroll soon.