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Earlier this month, the Pritzker Prize jury declined to retroactively include architect Denise Scott Brown in the 1991 award given to her husband and design partner, Robert Venturi. The jury’s action came in response to a petition created by two Harvard design students. An award-winning planning blog in my hometown, Smart City Memphis, used the occasion to remind readers about the last downtown plan that Brown worked on – the plan Downtown Memphis from 1986-87. In a post titled, Cobwebs Greeted Prestigious Downtown Plan, Tom Jones of Smart City Memphis relates the discouraging side of long-range planning as revealed by Brown’s experience in Memphis:

Downtown Memphis became the canvas for her firm’s last plan of its kind, primarily because they were losing money on them.

If it was her swan song, it was a magnificent one.  The Center City Development Plan was released in 1987 and its erudition, insights and recommendations were captured in the most impressive report ever delivered to Memphis.  There were about 20 volumes [!! emphasis added] replete with drawings, thoughtful insights, and provocative and solid recommendations.  As an associate with Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, respected Memphis architect James Williamson – now an associate professor of architecture at University of Memphis – was a vital part of the team that developed the downtown plan and was instrumental in weighing options.

Unfortunately, the ambitious and impressive plan was largely ignored.  Instead of funding the summary volume that would lay out next steps and implementation, the Center City Commission took that money and paid for yet another redesign of Court Square Park.  It was also a time of leadership transition at Center City Commission and a time when government and developers were largely unreceptive to a scholarly approach to the future of downtown, instead of quick fixes like festival market places.  The failure of Memphis to embrace the plan was another factor in her firm’s decision to end planning of this kind.

Jones goes on to evaluate why the plan floundered.

It’s likely that her work was doomed from the beginning.  Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates selected by a one-vote margin.  Developer-friendly representatives on the selection committee supported a firm whose trademark was festival marketplaces.  The other half of the committee was people more interested in the urban fabric and the historic character of downtown.  At the end of the selection process, the votes were divided down the middle, and the deciding vote was cast by the chair of the selection committee.

In retrospect, while the plan was excellent, its impact and import were undermined by lack of support by some key downtown interests.  They criticized Ms. Scott Brown’s style, her approach to planning, the extensive public input process, and her openness in public discussions.

As one of these people said at the time, “we could have had a festival marketplace but instead we got a lot of preservationist talk.”  Over time, they would be proven wrong as festival marketplaces opened with banners and fanfare and closed some years later.  The public wanted authenticity and governments and downtown agencies were delivering up artificially contrived shopping arcades.

A video of Denise Scott Brown discussing the Memphis plan:

In Her Own Words

 

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It’s the holiday season – and I’m sitting in the mall, blogging. Somehow I feel unique… but probably not unique, though, in waiting. In the Architect’s Newspaper, Alan G. Brake writes of the ascendance of landscape architecture. Brake hits on a few themes that fit this blog well – relationships between landscape architects and architects, planners as well as the rise of urbanism as a focus of the profession. Generally, I think landscape architects are too fixated on boosterism – and we love to highlight such praise – but I’m inclined to agree with Brake here. And I hope the profession rises to the opportunities before us. Ascendency, yes.

Landscape architecture’s dynamism, however, also points to certain weaknesses in contemporary architecture and planning. Architecture has been caught in a kind of hangover from the pre-crash years. Much of the profession, not to mention architectural education, is still too obsessed with architecture-as-object. The rise of tactical urbanism is a reaction to this, and also often involves landscape-based projects. Planning seems even more stuck. Too afraid to engage with design—following the failures of much of modernist planning—planners have either buried their noses in policy or retreated into colored-pencil-clichés of urbanism that seem dated. Landscape architects have stepped into that vacuum.

For the public, my hunch is that landscape architects offer something that architects typically do not. Parks and gardens have always engaged our Edenic fantasies. In a world under strain these places must also do considerable work, absorbing stormwater, filtering air pollution, and providing refuge in an increasingly urbanized world. Landscape architects are offering redemptive visions for neglected, damaged, and underutilized places. Environmental problems may seem overwhelming and insurmountable. But landscape architects offer solutions to improve our roofs, our blocks, our neighborhoods, a nearby waterway, or the city at large. If that sounds patronizing, it’s not meant to be. In the absence of aggressive federal (let alone global) environmental action to address the myriad of challenges we face, these interventions take on a critical, if piecemeal, significance.

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Photograph by The Eng Koon/National Geographic

We all know about the amazing expansion of, and creation of new, Chinese cities over the past couple of decades. Discussion of the significance of all that growth is inconsistent. Perhaps we don’t know what conclusions to draw from China because so much of the world seems in flux these days. Straight line projections are more dubious than ever. A couple of articles in the online journal, Foreign Policy, expose our confusion over China, in my opinion.

On August 13, 2012, the journal published an article by Isaac Stone Fish with the provocative title, Unlivable Cities. Fish paints a stark picture of life in Chinese cities. He says that the megacities “may seem impressive on paper, but they are awful places to live.” Fish’s perspective comes from living in China for seven years and traveling widely within it. He first decries the remarkable sameness of many Chinese cities.

Yes, China’s cities are booming, but there’s a depressing sameness to what you find in even the newest of new boomtowns. Consider the checklist of “hot” new urban features itemized in a 2007 article in the Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, including obligatory new “development zones” (sprawling corporate parks set up to attract foreign direct investment), public squares, “villa” developments for the nouveau riche, large overlapping highways, and, of course, a new golf course or two for the bosses. The cookie-cutter approach is such that even someone like Zhou Deci, former director of the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design, told the paper he has difficulty telling Chinese cities apart.

This model of endless fractal Beijings wouldn’t be so bad if the city itself were charming, but it is a dreary expanse traversed by unwalkable highways, punctuated by military bases, government offices, and other closed-off spaces, with undrinkable tap water and poisonous air that’s sometimes visible, in yellow or gray. And so are its lesser copies across the country’s 3.7 million square miles, from Urumqi in the far west to Shenyang way up north. For all their economic success, China’s cities, with their lack of civil society, apocalyptic air pollution, snarling traffic, and suffocating state bureaucracy, are still terrible places to live.

Fish saves his harshest critique for Harbin, the northern Chinese city with over 6 million residents that is the home of the Harbin Institute of Technology and the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. (A good number of Chinese landscape architecture students studying in the U.S. hail from Harbin.)

Like many Chinese cities, Harbin can be extremely challenging to the health — and not just due to the sometimes scandalously toxic food served in dim, poorly lit restaurants. Hospital bathrooms in Harbin and elsewhere often lack soap and toilet paper, ostensibly out of fear that residents will steal the items. Six months after I arrived, a benzene spill in the nearby Songhua River briefly left the city without running water. The air in Harbin was so polluted that I felt as though the coal dust had sunk into my lungs, and a fine layer of black soot seeped in through our windows overnight. But even Harbin wasn’t as filthy as Linfen, a city of 4 million people in central China’s Shanxi province that Time in 2007, on a list of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, said made “Dickensian London look as pristine as a nature park.”

Whoa! Not exactly a gleaming city of the future! Fish lightens up a bit toward the end of the article, but the focus is clearly on the “unlivability” aspect. Contrast that with another Foreign Policy article from the Sept/Oct, 2012 issue  and the cognitive dissonance is hard to avoid. Dustin Roasa tells us that the cities of the future are made in China. Is that supposed to be exciting, or terrifying? Roasa lands on exciting. Roasa’s claims ring true too, as he says “China is at the forefront of the world’s flashiest urban innovations.” Roasa recites a list of Chinese innovations, some familiar, some not, and he begins his article with lines designed to make Americans cringe. It’s the familiar meme:

just 12 years into the Asian Century, the city of the future has picked up and moved to China. No less than U.S. Vice President Joe Biden recognized this when he said not long ago, “If I blindfolded Americans and took them into some of the airports or ports in China and then took them to one in any one of your cities, in the middle of the night … and then said, ‘Which one is an American? Which one is in your city in America? And which one’s in China?’ most Americans would say, ‘Well, that great one is in America.’ It’s not.” The speech raised eyebrows among conservative commentators, but it points out the obvious to anyone who has spent time in Beijing, Hong Kong, or Shanghai (or even lesser-known cities like Shenzhen and Dalian, for that matter).

In these cities, visitors arrive at glittering, architecturally arresting airports before being whisked by electric taxis into city centers populated by modular green skyscrapers. In the not-so-distant future, they’ll hop on traffic-straddling buses powered by safe, clean solar panels. With China now spending some $500 billion annually on infrastructure — 9 percent of its GDP, well above the rates in the United States and Europe — and with the country’s population undergoing the largest rural-to-urban migration in human history, the decisions it makes about its cities will affect the future of urban areas everywhere. Want to know where urban technology is going? Take the vice president’s advice and head east.

OK, China is a huge country, and Harbin and Shanghai are very different places. But the efforts exerted in Beijing to alleviate air pollution in advance of the Olympics make it clear that the horrible and the impressive can coexist. If, indeed, Chinese cities are the cities of the future – models for the rapidly growing cities in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere – what part of the model will we get?

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Medellín, Columbia, a city once known for catastrophic levels of drug violence and now considered by many to be “reborn,” was the subject of an article in the New York Times yesterday. New public architecture, infrastructure, and public space are noticeable drivers of change in this city, and the author, Michael Kimmelman, describes the physical changes and illustrates them with a slideshow. Kimmelman also calls our attention to an essential fact of urban renaissance – there has to be a mechanism for financing it. Medellín has a vehicle for transformation that no U.S. Rust Belt city has.

Medellín, by contrast [with Bogotá, a city now struggling to maintain its achievements], still counts on an almost fierce parochial pride, a legacy of decent Modernist architecture dating back to the 1930s, a cadre of young architects being aggressively nurtured and promoted, and a commitment by local businesses to improve social welfare that begins with the city’s biggest business: its state-owned utilities company, E.P.M.

You can’t begin to grasp Medellín’s architectural renaissance without understanding the role of E.P.M., the Empresas Públicas de Medellín, which supplies water, gas, sanitation, telecommunications and electricity. It’s constitutionally mandated to provide clean water and electricity even to houses in the city’s illegal slums, so that unlike in Bogotá, where the worst barrios lack basic amenities, in Medellín there’s a safety net.

More than that, E.P.M.’s profits (some $450 million a year) go directly to building new schools, public plazas, the metro and parks. One of the most beautiful public squares in the middle of Medellín was donated by E.P.M. And atop the slums of the city’s Northeast district, E.P.M. paid for a park in the mountaintop jungle, linked to the district by its own cable car.

Federico Restrepo used to run E.P.M., before he became the city planner under Mr. Fajardo. “We took a view that everything is interconnected — education, culture, libraries, safety, public spaces,” he told me, pointing out that while fewer than 20 percent of public school students here used to test at the national average in 2002, by 2009 the number exceeded 80 percent.

“Obviously it’s not just that we built and renovated schools,” he said. “You have to work on the quality of teaching and nutrition in conjunction with architecture. But the larger point is that the goal of government should be providing rich and poor with the same quality education, transportation and public architecture. In that way you increase the sense of ownership.”

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My research on the potential for design to positively affect low income communities led me to an editorial in the New York Times from May of last year. The article’s title is Hands Off Our Houses, and it was a response to a competition to design a $300 house for the world’s poor. The authors, Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava, work in Dharavi, a neighborhood in Mumbia “that has become a one-stop shop for anyone interested in ‘slums’.” They give us a glimpse into a world that outsiders, especially Westerners, do not understand. Without an understanding rooted in the uniqueness of place, and of the lives of people living in that place, designers cannot offer solutions. The $300 house, an idea with good intent, will not help the poor of Dharavi for these reasons:

To start with, space is scarce. There is almost no room for new construction or ready-made houses. Most residents are renters, paying $20 to $100 a month for small apartments.

Those who own houses have far more equity in them than $300 — a typical home is worth at least $3,000. Many families have owned their houses for two or three generations, upgrading them as their incomes increase. With additions, these homes become what we call “tool houses,” acting as workshops, manufacturing units, warehouses and shops. They facilitate trade and production, and allow homeowners to improve their living standards over time.

None of this would be possible with a $300 house, which would have to be as standardized as possible to keep costs low. No number of add-ons would be able to match the flexibility of need-based construction.

In addition, construction is an important industry in neighborhoods like Dharavi. Much of the economy consists of hardware shops, carpenters, plumbers, concrete makers, masons, even real-estate agents. Importing pre-fabricated homes would put many people out of business, undercutting the very population the $300 house is intended to help.

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Take a look at this Next American City review of the Museum of Modern Art’s Foreclosed exhibit.

Curated by Barry Bergdoll and produced in less than three years (lightning-fast for large museums like MoMA), Foreclosed presents five architectural projects that rethink the suburbs from their economic underpinnings to their aesthetic character. But while the exhibit’s thesis that sprawl is toxic jives with that of many urbanists, the architectural remedies on display seem almost as problematic.

And the crux of the criticism:

It was critically apparent that none of the architects participating in the exhibit actually live in the suburbs (a fact confirmed by the exhibit’s curator). …snip… This outsider perspective on the suburbs is the exhibit’s crucial flaw and inevitably influenced the architects to propose interventions in suburbia that have all the grace of a superblock in the middle of the city grid. Despite their good intentions, their efforts at sustainability and their smart alternatives to homeownership, the architects’ wrath for the suburbs has caused them to create projects that annihilate the suburbs rather than improve them.

Follow the link for the full review, and see some images from the exhibition here. And while you are at the Next American City site, check out the article titled, What Legos Can Teach Us About Civic Participation.

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In Small Change, Nabeel Hamdi includes an excerpt from Italo Calvino’s Le Cita Invisibili (1972) that I find striking, especially as I consider the challenges of planning in the merging megacities of the world. It’s worth sharing, I think.

Zenobia, a city in Asia, has houses made of bamboo and zinc, with many platforms and balconies placed on stilts at various heights, crossing one another, linked by ladders and hanging belvederes, with barrels storing water, weather vanes, jutting pulleys, fish poles and cranes.

No-one remembers what need, command, or desire drove Zenobia’s founders to give their city this form, as the buildings are constructed on pilings that sit over dry terrain. But what is certain is that if a traveler asks an inhabitant of Zenobia to describe his vision of a happy life, it is always a city like Zenobia that he imagines, with its piling and suspended stairways, a Zenobia perhaps aflutter with banners and ribbons, quite different from the original but always derived by combining elements of that first model.

However, it is pointless to try to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into a different two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give form to their desires and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.

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