Built and Unbuilt Wonders

6 05 2009

History is littered with grand schemes left unbuilt due to changes in circumstance, shifts of power or preference, or imaginations overreaching rational possibility. Urban and architecture nerds will often muse with a faraway look in their eyes about these projects and bold ideas as if they were missed opportunities in a city’s history, the big ideas that would have made all the difference. I recently discovered (via the excellent bldgblog) that an Australian magazine, Architecture Australia, gives out awards every year for the best Unbuilt Work, and it’s quite an interesting collection. 

Among the award recipients is what amounts to a napkin drawing by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, sketching out ideas for an ideal urban form for Adelaide, Australia, done entirely from descriptions of the city he was offered by a Dr. Hugh C. Trumble, an Adelaide native, whom Le Corbusier met in Bogota, Columbia. Short article from AA here. This is an appalling thought to me, designing a city without first-hand knowledge of existing form or culture, but for Adelaide it was no problem, as the napkin plan never amounted to anything. But the exploration of ideas may have had a profound impact on another city, Chandigarh, India, for which Le Corbusier developed a master plan in 1951.

Le Corbusier's 1950 sketch musing on the possible future urban form of Adelaide, Australia - www.architectureaustralia.com.au

Le Corbusier's 1950 sketch of the possible future urban form of Adelaide, Australia - http://www.architectureaustralia.com.au

I’ve been to Chandigarh. (Spent a lovely day in hospital there, in fact!) It is a largely medium-rise, block-planned city, with each small neighbourhood unit being laid out precisely and repeated over the landscape with surprisingly little variation. It seems to be one of India’s most automobile-dependent and sprawling cities, and its urban culture is almost entirely alien to my experience of urban India: it was orderly, clean, difficult to get around in due to distance rather than congestion, and ultimately devoid of the vibrancy I experienced in other Indian cities. Some visitors may find this to be a blessing, considering the unceasing press of humanity that characterizes most Indian cities; but to me it felt like a botched graft into the culture, one that has forced residents to adapt to its functions rather than serving their patterns of living. Much of the reason for the sprawling character of Chandigarh is the fairly strict segregation of uses pursued in the built form, characteristic of modernist planning but rather ridiculous in India where car ownership is an unaffordable luxury for most. And of course in 1950’s India car ownership would have been almost unheard of. My feeling is that Chandigarh may have been better off left as a collection of sketches on the back of an envelope. 

Looking at the different awards on the Architecture Australia website, I was reminded of original plans I once saw for the University of Alberta campus. The majority of this very formalized and traditional campus plan was never realized, as the university stayed very small until Alberta’s oil boom began in the 1950’s, by which time ideas had changed. But those familiar with the U of A will recognize its legacy in the quadrangle and other open spaces to be found on campus.

University of Alberta campus plan of 1912 - www.ualberta.ca

University of Alberta campus plan of 1912 - http://www.ualberta.ca

Bird's eye architectural drawing of the 1912 U of A campus plan - www.ualberta.ca

Bird's eye architectural drawing of the 1912 U of A campus plan - http://www.ualberta.ca


What On Earth?

7 04 2009

Aha! I’ve finally figured out how to embed video. It’s not that hard, it turns out. Good thing, because I just rediscovered a great National Film Board animated short that’s well worth sharing: What On Earth?

It is the story of the Martian discovery of Earth, and their mistaken impressions about what exactly constitutes intelligent life on this planet. If you have about 10 minutes to spare, it’s worth a view. It’s quite funny, as well as a bit thought-provoking.

It would seem that not that much has changed since it was produced in 1967.

The Hair that Wags the Dog

13 03 2009

Municipal government being the closest level of government to the people, mayors can sometimes be more powerful agents of change than national leaders, even if their sphere of influence is much smaller. So I thought perhaps it was time for me to have a look at a few notable municipal leaders. But on which criteria would I select from the masses of world mayors? Hair, of course. If age and the political establishment can be characterized by bald or balding men, then the image of the next generation of leaders, those with vigorous and fresh ideas, must naturally have a full head of gorgeous hair.

A google search for “mayor” and “hair” brings up three star candidates, two of whom have already graced these pages: Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, the young playboy with a forcefully slicked ‘do who fights for health care and gay rights; Mayor David Miller of Toronto, the Blackberry-Twittering, wide-smiling liberal who enchants with his wavy golden mane; and Lord Mayor of London Boris Johnson, the outspoken Conservative and media darling, whose laissez-faire approach to hair management matches his political record as LM thus far.

Weighting: 50% for hair, 50% for political record.

Slickster Gavin Newsom - photo Justin Sullivan

Slickster Gavin Newsom - photo by Justin Sullivan

Gavin Newsom

Hair – That hair is not going anywhere. There are no signs of recession (impressive, considering the challenges his city and state are facing), and it would take a very strong wind indeed to put a hair out of place. I’m not sure what kind of product he uses to achieve that look, but it must have some serious grip. Ultimately, however, it’s a tad too severe for my tastes.  Score – 35

Record – Newsom’s political record is impressive, having aggressively tackled some very big issues since becoming mayor in 2003: homelessness (Care Not Cash initiative); gay marriage (he legalized it in SF shortly after taking office, and his administration is now fighting the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 referendum, which banned it in November); universal health care (Newsom’s Healthy San Francisco initiative provides health coverage to all SF residents); and the environment (Newsom has committed SF to achieving Kyoto targets). Overall, Newsom seems unafraid to take on big issues and is making progress on a number of fronts that, while locally-focused, have had implications and repercussions much farther afield than the Bay Area. He can be a bit sensitive to media criticism, and has lashed out at reporters in the past, but this seems like a minor criticism in light of his other progressive achievements.  Score – 45

David Miller's flowing locks - photo by Babak

David Miller's flowing locks - photo by Babak

David Miller

Hair – Oh my, what a beautiful wave. This man has a good barber. It suits him, it’s luxuriant, and I’m sure it can’t hurt his re-election chances. There are photographic indications that Miller’s hair health has suffered during his time as Mayor of Toronto, but I would blame that on the stresses of the job and not his personal hygiene.  Score – 45

Record – Recently in the news for his enthusiasm for Twitter, sometimes posting from his Blackberry while in the middle of meetings (!), Mayor Miller has been active on a wide variety of issues, but not necessarily successful on all of them. Public transit improvements are high on his list of priorities, unveiling plans in 2007 to massively expand the light rail network in Toronto. The plan is dependent on significant funding from higher levels of government, however, and already some project priorities have been rejigged for political purposes. Miller has been a vocal supporter of the redevelopment of the Toronto Waterfront and, conversely, an opponent of Toronto Island Airport expansion, areas where he has had success. Reform of Toronto finances resulted in major controversies in 2007 (but eventual approval), with massive operating shortfalls reported and opposition to his proposals on how to solve the problem, a mixture of tax increases and service cuts. Miller has also been active on environmental issues, pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the city aggressively. Overall, Miller’s record has seen some successes, but also some setbacks, and while the mayor seems charismatic, he has not managed to win the Toronto and Ontario political set over to many of his ideas.  Score – 30

Boris Johnson and his unruly hair - photo Fiona Hanson

Boris Johnson and his unruly hair - photo by Fiona Hanson

Boris Johnson

Hair – Boris Johnson has a unique approach to hair, and it seems to involve basically just letting it run free. Although this image is the best I found, a full google image search reveals that his hair is hardly ever the same twice, and its uniqueness has helped establish him in the public eye in Britain. But what does the laissez-faire approach to hair indicate about his political persona: a perennially fresh perspective, or dangerous unpredictability? Score – depending on the day, 30-40

Record – It is hard to make too many solid judgements on Johnson’s track record as mayor, primarily because he has been in office for less than a year. Policy (or lack of it) on tall buildings has been for many years now a topic of intense debate in London, but it would appear that Johnson has not offered clear leadership on the issue. He has some links to Mayor Miller, co-chairing a world mayor’s group focused on greenhouse gases, the C40, with him. He made the sensible decision to ban the consumption of alcohol on London public transport, but the decision unfortunately resulted in mass public drinking and confrontations with police on the Circle Line the day before the law came into effect. A recent Economist podcast offered the opinion that Johnson has made significant strides over Ken Livingstone, the previous mayor, in terms of governing style (more consensual, less combative) but has done little to put his stamp on the Mayor’s Office, and has not articulated a clear vision. I’ll give him some benefit of the doubt due to his newness in the post, but the signs are not promising.  Score – 20

RESULTS – The winner, by a hair, is San Francisco’s Gavin Newsom with 80 points. His record stood out like a roostertail amongst the three candidates, though he nearly got the shaft for a middling hair performance. Any moves to emancipate his mane would no doubt soften his image. Though to be frank, I just can’t see him succeeding with a Boris Johnson-style approach to hair. Perhaps he should just stay the course and keep focused on the politics.

From Eye Teeth to Urban Jewel?

4 03 2009

In June of this year Edmonton will consider the possibility of closing the city-owned City Centre Airport (the Muni) and look at options for redevelopment. While the decision is still a long way off, the debate seems to be ramping up in the media, with Scott McKeen writing two columns in the last week, business leaders making their pitches, and a slew of letters to the editor showing up in the Edmonton Journal in recent weeks.

A small plane flies over downtown on its way to land at the Muni

A small plane flies over downtown on its way to land at the Muni

The future of the Muni, which competed with Edmonton International until a referendum in 1995 decided (by an overwhelming 77% of voters) to consolidate scheduled air traffic at the larger airport, has long been a point of debate. Although the referendum halted most scheduled traffic, it remains a hub of Edmonton’s aviation industry, still serves the small-but-influential business travelling class, and serves as a convenient base for med-evac flights. It’s the business travellers that seem to be the most vocal proponents of not only maintaining the Muni, but also reopening it to scheduled air traffic. Arguments offered are varied, but usually boil down to these two points: that the Muni is a vital economic driver for Edmonton’s connections with northern communities, and that almost any North American city would give its eye teeth to have an airport in such close proximity to its downtown. I don’t really see how Edmonton’s links with the north would be severed by the closure of the Muni any more than Edmonton’s links with the rest of the world were severed after consolidation. But it’s the second argument that interests me most, as there are actually some North American cities that have shut down major inner city airports in the last 10 years, and have made real urban development success stories out of the choice.

Denver’s Stapleton International Airport and Austin’s Mueller Municipal Airport were closed in 1995 and 1999, respectively. Both were huge sites (Stapleton – 4700 ac/1850 ha; Mueller – 709 ac/279 ha) and in both cases the existence of neighboring residential communities was a major factor in the decision to relocate. Both cities took their time developing master plans for their sites, and both chose to select a single master developer to take charge of construction. Stapleton has been under development since 2001, while Mueller has been on the go since 2004. Both master plans exhibit all the best of current planning thought, focusing on mixed uses, higher but mixed densities, pedestrian and transit orientation (both have rapid transit stops planned or under construction), significant open space components,  and an overall emphasis on social, economic and environmental sustainability. The developer at Stapleton, for instance, is grinding up old infrastructure for reuse, stating sensibly: “It’s cheaper to mine the runways than to go mine the quarries.” Both sites have garnered significant interest in planning circles, and Stapleton in particular has received numerous Smart Growth awards, one from as far away as Sweden. An interesting analysis of Denver’s Stapleton redevelopment here, and a comparison of Denver and Austin’s approaches by Austin’s Chamber of Commerce here.

The other notable Canadian urban airport debate would be over Toronto’s Island Airport. Closure of this airport has also been considered in recent years, and the current mayor David Miller was elected in 2003 partly on a pledge to nix plans to build a bridge to the island (currently served by a ferry). Similar arguments have been made in that city, with a swelling downtown residential population arguing for closure or restrictions for quality of life reasons, and the business community citing the need for expansion for reasons of economics.

So Edmonton is not alone in this. Arguments on both sides still need to be made, and the final word will be heard from City Council. But it seems clear that the “eye teeth” argument, that Edmonton is a bush league city if it thinks that closing a central airport is a good idea, does not hold water. Some very dynamic North American cities have made the tough choice to close their airports, and then have gotten busy constructing a progressive urban vision for them. Taking planes out of the downtown skies may not necessarily mean that the sky is falling.

Built Well, But All At Once

19 02 2009

You might think that a city whose economy is based on innovative technology might also develop an innovative urban form, but San Jose instead seems to be a prototypical new American city: a downtown bristling with tall towers surrounded by low-density sprawl and strip development for about as far as the eye can see. The creativity of Adobe, Cisco and other Silicon Valley stalwarts seems focused within the walls of their tech campuses, not spilling out onto the sidewalks and into neighborhoods. But that’s not to say that there is nothing to see in San Jose’s suburban hinterland. Since San Jose is home to one of the most affluent populations in the US, there’s money to splash around on high-end shopping, and that has resulted in Santana Row, the most ambitious “lifestyle” retail development I have ever come across.

Turn a mall inside out and put it on steroids, and what do you get? Big box power center development. But reduce the dosage of steroids, hide the cars, add in a residential component and some smart urban design and you get Santana Row. Or, to characterize it somewhat differently, you get a European town center on steroids.

Arcaded sidewalks

Arcaded sidewalks

The design is very smart. Coming in from the surrounding roads, the first thing you notice is the absence of parking. The parking is almost all hidden underground and in the interior of blocks, and the best way to shop is to stash the car and get out and walk. Then you notice the wide sidewalks and the sense of enclosure by the 3 to 5 storey buildings. One block has arcaded sidewalks and mews to adjacent streets and parking areas, another has fountains and small kiosk shops and restaurants in a wide, tree-shaded pedestrian plaza between the lanes of traffic, and another street has a green square, Valencia Park, bordered by roads on two sides and buildings on the other two. Retail or restaurants are the consistent ground floor use, and pricey condominiums and a boutique hotel rise above. In short, it’s got a little bit of everything in a compact and attractive package. Santana Row has a space to please everybody, and though it didn’t appear to be a terribly busy shopping day the afternoon I visited, there were still plenty of people enjoying the space under the big tree, sitting in the green square and strolling the arcades.

A mature tree in a central pedestrian plaza creates a great place to relax

A mature tree in the linear pedestrian plaza creates a place to rest and people-watch

When compared to Westfield Valley Fair, the big traditional mall just to the north across Stevens Creek Boulevard, or to the isolated, asphalt-surrounded shoeboxes of standard power centers, Santana Row is a dream. And a really good one at that. The place focuses on people, de-emphasizes the car, and has some elements that inspire real delight. It’s won awards, and it’s no wonder: this is a very rare form of large-scale commercial development.

But, when it’s compared to a thriving main street shopping district, or to the European town centers it seems to be modeled on, I think it does come up short. All the glitz of the Gucci, Burberry and Diesel wares on display do not make up for the fact that there is a uniformity to the place, a lack of authenticity. And I can’t say that I see this as a slight against the designers, as the creativity, expense and attention to detail is evident around every corner. But it is inescapable that this place was designed and built all at once.

Valencia Park with its astroturf, bordered by palms and restaurants

Valencia Park with its astroturf, bordered by palms and restaurants

It lacks the organic quality of a street that has seen changes over time, with multiple owners taking care of their buildings in different ways, perhaps neglecting them, or perhaps trying to one-up their neighbors. Santana Row is beautiful, but it also feels airbrushed. The grass in Valencia Park was actually astroturf. And for all of its attractive qualities and emphasis on the walking experience, it is still a disconnected oasis of pedestrianism amidst an otherwise auto-dominated landscape.

I can’t say I disliked it. I found it a very interesting place, and it really does represent a huge improvement over the parking lots and blank walls of malls and big boxes. But Santana Row doesn’t feel like a place I could easily take ownership of. Perhaps, like a new pair of jeans, it might just need to be lived in for a while. But in the meantime, I think I’ll probably stick with Main Street.

Wheels Turning : Times Changing

9 02 2009

As a 2008 wrap-up, GOOD Magazine did a survey of the state of our planet. An impossible task, but it resulted in some interesting articles, one of which suggested some big changes in transportation trends continuing into 2009: increased cycling, increased transit use, higher gas prices (though prices have dropped for the time being), infrastructure spending to fight the recession and the rise of electric vehicles.

It also offered another short article on some great examples around the world of places which are taking innovative approaches to cycling, and getting around in general.

Paris’ new Velib bike rental system is the most exciting concept, for my money, with an average of 130,000 bike rentals per day since it was launched in July of 2007. There’s a great overview by the Bikes Belong Coalition on vimeo, complete with cool-hipster narration. I can’t embed the video for some reason, but click on the image below to see it:

Bikes Belong Coalition - Paris' Velib bike system

Paris' Velib bike system - Bikes Belong Coalition