Tag Archives: urbanism

Russia

Moscow’s lost trees

I love Moscow, but its downtown is barren of trees. Even when you get a prerevolutionary or constructivist break from the Stalinist promenade down Tverskaya, it’s just a little lifeless. But check out Ilya Varlamov‘s collection of photos of what Moscow looked like before its streets lost their trees. So much better.

Why, you might ask, did the trees all go? Well, zyalt says that the official answer is that they couldn’t take the pollution – but this is nonsense after the financial crises of the 90s.

At the end of the day, the answer is autocentrism. Trees interfered with parking, they posed security risks, and they took up potential lanes. Under the 1990s program of incoherent highway expansion, the last remnants of downtown greenery were torn up. If, on the other hand, Moscow had pursued a sustainable transportation policy before Sobyanin, the trees would have survived to serve the 80% of Muscovites who take public transport.

Maybe now is different. Check out the whole set, it’s remarkable what a difference there is.

Architecture Russia

“Death and Life” Published in Russian

Jane Jacobs’ seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is now available in Russian by the house Novoe Izdatelstvo. I think this is pretty remarkable that it took so long, but the editor says that it’s appearing at the right time.

In translation, the title is Смерть и жизнь больших американских городов. Literally, that means “The Death and Life of big American cities.” That, to me, loses the valorizing nuance of the word “Great,” but maybe the fancier translation of the word, “великие” has too much Stalinist baggage, or perhaps my reading of the title is wrong. Either way,they say translation is tricky.

In an interview with the Strelka Institute’s blog, the editor of Novoe Izdatelstvo provides his own example:

This issue arises first and foremost with relation to one of the central concepts of Jacobs’s book: the neighbourhood (in our book, “okrug“, or “district”). The word “neighborhood” taken literally means something like one’s personal area, an urban habitat, the borders of which are determined not by the government but by one’s own typical routes of travel, one’s everyday needs and habits, and so on. This word is difficult to translate into Russian precisely because this way of conceiving space doesn’t really exist in our cities.

For the unfamiliar, the term “okrug” is much more of a legal category, like an ANC, that reached its modern meaning during the era of hyper-centralized Soviet housing estates. One other part of the interview stood out to me, where the editor, Andrey Kurilkin remarks:

I would say that this book is like a new optical instrument that allows you to see complex processes where only yesterday you noticed nothing at all. Our intuitive conceptions of a conveniently designed city, with small streets, parks, a local butcher shop across the way, old buildings, and a convivial street life are given a logical and vigorous theoretical foundation.

Jacobs and her work have suffered from creeping hagiography, so it’s good to see the author reinforcing the intention that the book be a tool for understanding, rather than a prescriptive manual.

You can read the introduction here (PDF), and I recommend the other book mentioned in the interview, Seeing Like a State.

Local planning

Small Town Politics: No dialogue with Safeway

seatingAfter the heated debate at the November ANC 3E meeting, you might have expected an even fiercer confrontation this past Thursday.  There were even promises of it.
But it wasn’t. Instead, anger had been supplanted with dismayed grouchiness. While Avis Black, the regional real estate manager attended the meeting, she entrusted the presentation to Brian O’Looney, an associate principal at the architecture firm Torti Gallas. In a series of slides, he demonstrated the great lengths the architects had gone to in making the bulk of the structure as unobtrusive as possible without sacrificing the program of the store.
Yet, that program, the functional concept of the store, is precisely the problem. The grocery store, and all its subsidiary stores, such as a Starbucks, would face inward, contained in one enormous envelope with a unitary entrance. To their credit, the architects have tried to address neighbor’s concerns, but their efforts are like putting a rhinoceros in a corset. When called to cut down the size of the proposed store by 1,000 square feet, around 2% of the total area, Ms. Black simply refused.
The other sources of contention revolved around automobility. Noise emandating from the garage concerned one 43rd street resident in particular. Out front, it became clear that Safeway did not want to remove a slip lane between Wisconsin and 42nd St. because they intended it use it for cars to idle for grocery pick up. That a reconfigured intersection would be safer for pedestrians, produce a better pocket park, and reduce the amount of speeding on 42nd was not worth the change.
Unfortunately, critics of the store could not put up a consistent front, entering tangents about a number of minor elements – some of which were created by other halfhearted concessions.  Whose interests does the store need to address? The hottest moment of a debate came when an irate Georgetown Day teacher called out the proposal to move the controversial rear walkway, which ran from the school to the store entrance, inside the garage. The teacher declared, indignantly, that GDS was a neighbor too.
And beyond that, how about the residents of a few blocks away – or the region? At what point does a corporation that entered into public debate, as part of the Planned Unit Development process, have to address the public benefits. Safeway has tried to reduce the impact on adjacent neighbors. However, the store needs to take into consideration public issues, like regional planning, street life, and future growth in the area. A beautiful wall like the one to be built along 42nd is still just a wall. With the currently proposed monolithic store, Safeway cannot be urban.
What did appear was a conclusive sense that dialogue had failed between neighbors and the store. Safeway had made no promises and now promised even less. The neighbors in attendance seemed to not expect any changes. So the potential for mixed use and sustainable neighborhood design is lost, unless Safeway reconsiders their plans, or the zoning commission rejects them. The site has much potential, but Safeway is choosing to  squander that.

After the heated debate at the November ANC 3E meeting, you might have expected an even fiercer confrontation this past Thursday.  There were even promises of it.

But it wasn’t. Instead, anger had been supplanted with dismayed grouchiness. While Avis Black, the regional real estate manager attended the meeting, she entrusted the presentation to Brian O’Looney, an associate principal at the architecture firm Torti Gallas. In a series of slides, he demonstrated the great lengths the architects had gone to in making the bulk of the structure as unobtrusive as possible without sacrificing the program of the store.

Yet, that program, the functional concept of the store, is precisely the problem. The grocery store, and all its subsidiary stores, such as a Starbucks, would face inward, contained in one enormous envelope with a unitary entrance. To their credit, the architects have tried to address neighbor’s concerns, but their efforts are like putting a rhinoceros in a corset. When called to cut down the size of the proposed store by 1,000 square feet, around 2% of the total area, Ms. Black simply refused.

The other sources of contention revolved around automobility. Noise emandating from the garage concerned one 43rd street resident in particular. Out front, it became clear that Safeway did not want to remove a slip lane between Wisconsin and 42nd St. because they intended it use it for cars to idle for grocery pick up. That a reconfigured intersection would be safer for pedestrians, produce a better pocket park, and reduce the amount of speeding on 42nd was not worth the change.

Unfortunately, critics of the store could not put up a consistent front, entering tangents about a number of minor elements – some of which were created by other halfhearted concessions.  Whose interests does the store need to address? The hottest moment of a debate came when an irate teacher at the adjacent Georgetown Day School called out the proposal to move the controversial rear walkway, which ran from the school to the store entrance, inside the garage. The teacher declared, indignantly, that GDS was a neighbor too.

Just a little too large.
Just a little too large for anyone's good.

And beyond that, how about the residents of a few blocks away – or the region? At what point does a corporation that entered into public debate, as part of the Planned Unit Development process, have to address the public benefits. Safeway has tried to reduce the impact on adjacent neighbors. However, the store needs to take into consideration public issues, like regional planning, street life, and future growth in the area. A beautiful wall like the one to be built along 42nd is still just a wall. With the currently proposed monolithic store, Safeway cannot be urban.

What did appear was a conclusive sense that dialogue had failed between neighbors and the store. Safeway had made no promises and now promised even less. The neighbors in attendance seemed to not expect any changes. So the potential for mixed use and sustainable neighborhood design is lost, unless Safeway reconsiders their plans, or the zoning commission rejects them. The site has much potential, but Safeway is choosing to  squander that.

Local

Small Town Politics: Just Safeway

Gate way

I apologize for the delay, but here’s the Safeway portion of the ANC meeting. However, this should get everyone excited for December’s meeting, no?

Safeway sent Avis Black, the Regional Real Estate Manager for DC, as a representative instead of their pricklier spokesman. She reiterated Safeway’s position as wanting to work with the community and then stood for questions.  And I mean stood there – she faced the audience for at least an hour of tempered but stern questioning. And for all the criticism, everyone was polite and cooperative. In fact, most of the other people who spoke brought up, again and again, that they wanted changes to the plan, not no growth at all. Actually, many present were conducive to a project that would build an as-of-right building above a store that was still larger than the existing one, but not so gargantuan as the proposed.

First to stand was Adam Rubinson, the de facto leader of the critics. He likewise reiterated his requests for Safeway to make substantial changes to the design of the new store. He listed off the general complaints everyone involved has heard so far, as well as some new ones. I’ll repeat them here for people who weren’t there. read more »

Reno Park Studies

Reno Park Update 091017: Nolli Fails

davenport-street-murch

This is what the average street looks like in Tobago. 30 foot setback, grass, buildings.

can-nolli

This is a part of the Nolli Plan. It’s a famous figure-ground drawing of Rome by a man of the same name that makes a visual comparison between structures and open space. There had been many drawings of Rome before, but Nolli’s particular drawing innovates on the others by showing the ground floor interior spaces or courtyards as part of the white space. It revealed columns and arcades, relating architecture to the urban form. read more »

Architecture Local planning

McMillan Two envisions a Classical Anacostia

mcmillan-two-anacostia-quay

The public character of Washington has grown around two grand plans. First, Charles L’Enfant laid out the city as a sacred grove for the marking of America’s history. One century later, the McMillan Commission restored and expanded upon that original design to include the history of the Nineteenth Century. Now, The city center has grown up in the second hundred years since then, enough for Congress to declare the Mall closed to new development. Meanwhile, the rest of the city has built up or spread out into suburbs. In light of the last fifty years, a group of traditional Washingtonian architects have developed an audacious proposal for the next lifetime of growth, McMillan Two. Fulfilling some less-known intentions of the McMillan Plan with slight modifications, this plan essentially calls for bringing Paris, mansard , Seine and all, to the Capital of the United States.

Developed by the Build DC Initiative and architect Nir Buras in particular, the design has been sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, the National Civic Arts Society, with some support from the DC chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism. Buras’s philosophy draws hard from tradition: we know what is beautiful and what works – and we should do that. Downplaying strident formal innovation, the relationship buildings have to precedents in a cultural tradition guides design. For McMillan Two, France provides that tradition, particularly L’Enfant’s garden models and the Beaux-arts education of Burnham, McKim, and Olmsted. Though the partners have kept much of the project under wraps, Buras has recently begun sharing the outlines of this radical rethinking of DC’s future, namely that “Washington remains the most beautiful city in the nation.”

current-anacostia-plan
Near Southeast today. All images courtesy Nir Buras.

The McMillan Two plan
The McMillan Two plan

read more »

Local

North of Tilden: In the name of the Father, the Builder and Community Spirit

The Tenleytown area has been a hub of hubbub for the past two weeks, and more is to come. Four long awaited projects made great strides, however, opportunities are still being lost.

First the good news: The Tenleytown Library will break ground today, September 23rd at 10:30 AM, with Mayor Fenty and perhaps some protesters in attendance. The Economic Development office decided to spend $650K-1M to build stronger girders in the rear of the building, to permit future growth above and to the rear of the library. Across Wisconsin, the renovated and restored fields at Fort Reno Park will open on October 3rd. Another contentious site, the three athletic pitches look great. I can’t wait to see people enjoying the park and all its earthly delights again.

The new structure is on the left. Pray for a good contractor.
Top: Yuma Elevation, new structure at left. Bottom: Western elevation. (Image via DCMud)

Opus Dei revealed more details about their plan for the Yuma Study Center, a residential and educational facility behind St. Ann’s Catholic Church. Going before the HPRB, Moses of the Anacostia Nir Buras presented a handsome traditional home that would stand west of the Covenant of the Bon Secours building. Alvin Holm‘s design for the building is in a humbler strand of Classicism than the grandiose variety that Washington is known for, and that’s really good to see. As you can see, the new building would have nearly identical proportions and mass, but would use a more Chesapeake style and add a porch to indicate a residential character. However, I think the building would be better to stand on its own rather than be a redecorated twin. Still, positive.

And below, the ARD gives us Barabbas. read more »

Architecture Theory Writing

Reburbia and the future of suburbs

Frogs Dream, the winner, brings back the wetlands
Frog's Dream, the winner, brings back the wetlands

Beginning with this post, I’ll be writing on some local and urbanism-related issues at Greater Greater Washington from time to time.

In “Eyes That Do Not See,” Le Corbusier noted that airplane designers were unable to achieve heavier-than air flight until they understood the underlying issues of aeronautics – until they had posed the problem correctly. Until the tinkerers stopped imitating birds and kites and began investigating lift in a scientific way, they just produced spectacular failures and beautiful dreams. So, when looking through the finalists to the Reburbia suburban redesign contest, it was curious to see how, although many projects owe a debt to the Swiss architect, a great deal show confusion about the problems of “suburbia.”

Reburbia was a design competition where designers were invited to remodel, reuse, redevelop, and restructure the landscape of suburban development. Sponsored by Inhabitat and Dwell, the contest presented 20 finalists and a number of other notable entries for public viewing. Although they’ve already announced winners, the issues that appear in the submissions deserve more discussion. These open competitions are like fashion shows, where the offerings exist as inspiration for other designers more than practical solutions. Some of the ideas tossed around here might make their way into an abandoned mall, but the ideas that grow out of Reburbia are more important. As architects, planners, and citizens look for solution, we have to keep in mind what the problems are to judge any given solution.

Edible Parking? Bumper Crop
Edible Parking? "Bumper Crop"

Declaring that the suburbs need to be re-burbed begs the question of how much, and which kinds, of suburban development are unsustainable, undesirable, or inefficient.  Following that line of thought, designers need to consider whether mitigation of costs can solve an issue, whether simply pulling out unfair subsidies would help, or whether a total revamp has to occur. The projects in Reburbia revolved around a handful of issues that are unique to automobile-dependent sprawl, as well as others that all cities face. The entrants posed their problems around land use, energy waste, sustainable energy production, loss of natural habitats, low density, unappealing or unwalkable street design, transportation inefficiency, water runoff, and the legal mandates for development. read more »

Architecture planning

Introducing the boozy walkabout

I want to talk about my favorite way to explore and study a city. Let me be upfront with you. All I’m really going to say in this post is “get drunk and walk around.”

More specifically, get together a group of friends, conceal-carry a tasty alcoholic drink, and start walking down the street. In the dark and with diminished inhibitions, a cadre of walkers can become closer to the city than at any other time. When empty and dim, even the canyons of Midtown can seem intimate, as the view from a mountain can be both accessible and impossibly vast. Add friends and a moderate amount of booze, and it becomes a kind of private party on the move, with guests arriving as the group passes them.

Now, the best way to analyze a city is simply to walk around in it; just to see, in an uncritical way, the functioning of an urban environment. This kind of study is called a “transect,” which is not exactly Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s Transect zoning system, but it is the underlying idea. Taken from ecology, a transect is an activity where the participants examine conditions along an unbroken line, basically creating a section of a lake, or a rainforest, or a city. The technique has shown success because it enables a holistic understanding of a city, exploring the weave of the so-called urban fabric.

Best, but not the most fun. There are two problems with an academic transect: It is, um, academic. Walking around to observe human-building interaction has consistently proven to be one of the least enticing activities to my friends. On a more personal level, expectations of what sort of urban environments work can interfere with observation. Reason and language get in the way of simple experience. Disarming guarded faculties is critical to being fair and free – and friends are a great remedy for crotchety ol’ critics.

b-walkabout
Preferrred, 3-step alternative.

The solution, then, is to turn the transect into a social event. Everyone I know who’s tried a boozy walkabout has had a good time – with repeat customers. Who needs an outdoor café to get that feeling of urbane place? Grabbing a bottle of Coke and mixing in some bourbon not only saves you a stack of cash, it also lets you see more of the city. When the conversation fades you can just take a look around at the beauty and the oddities that surround you, and likewise you can tune it out with conversation.

Here’s a map of some recent walkabouts.

View Boozy Walkbouts in a larger map

The evening is the best time for this kind of fun. Evening into night, where you begin in the remnants of the workday, pass by diners on the street, and then you hit peak inebriation at the same time as nightlife gets ebullient, before finally reemerging into consciousness in the cool and sleepy streets. In this time, you see age groups come and go in turn, old, young, and youthful. Before heading home, you and your friends have explored a little bit of the city, learned a little bit, but it won’t feel like an expedition.

There are no books, no notes, and no theories weighing you down. You feel the city, both its living and sturdy parts, and you share these feelings with others. There’s community from the common experience. Connections grow, even between those in the group and those who aren’t.

So visit the city, and bring your own party.

Local

North of Tilden: Old wounds

Tenleytown: Three threads of the ongoing Tenley/Janney controversy have converged in the past two weeks, plus a new arrival.

A well-scaled and elegant building for Tenleytown.

I. The city has declared that they will begin construction of the new Freelon-Group-designed library in September. However, out on the Tenleytown Listserv, discussion flared up when it became clear that the department of economic development was asking the architect to add structural columns that could support multistory residential. This practice is not uncommon, but it would be a wasteful expenditure if the Tenleytown Historical Society succeeds in landmarking the school, and adding to the structure becomes more difficult. Both properties sit on the same lot.
II. The HPRB has agreed to review a preservation application for the 1925 elementary school. Built by the city architect, Albert Harris, it’s a decent example of the stripped-down Beaux-arts Georgian style he developed for the rapid expansion of public facilities in the early 20th Century. Although it was the first of all the schools built in the area, I don’t see how the 84-year-old school merits perpetual legal protection, at least not at this point. Especially considering that the building is not in any danger of demolition or permanent alteration. Moreover, landmarking could seriously delay the much-needed renovation of the aging school needlessly.

III. The department of education is proceeding, however, with the development. They’ve hired Devrouax + Purnell to design a wing to the west of the current building. Part of the planning framework requires that DP respect the historical structures of the area. I have no doubt that they will. Their work in DC has been humane and sensitive, while also adding innovating modern elements. Freelon and DP’s buildings will be coups for the architecturally stagnated area, so it’s in the neighborhood’s interest to support their work.

IV: On the site of the former Oakcrest School at 4101 Yuma Street, a new religious center for women and girls will be opening this fall. The Yuma Study Center, a vaguely defined but Opus-Dei-affiliated religious institution will itself be renovating and expanding the old Bon Secours covenant. The current structure is dilapidated, so renovation will be welcome, once I can figure out exactly what the institution does.

Van Ness: This past weekend saw the second-ever farmers’ market on the plaza in front of UDC. The market is a twofer fer the residents of condograd across the street,  putting the large plaza to use and getting farm-fresh goods onto a public street.

Hawthorne: The Post covers the ongoing slapfest in the very northern neighborhood of Hawthorne, a small collection of 1950s houses that was built in the fashion of the times: without sidewalks. DC has been improving and adding sidewalks throughout the city, improving pedestrian safety and encouraging walking, however, some residents of the area northeast of Utah Avenue won’t have any of that filthy urban nonsense. They moved there because they wanted to be in DC without being in the city.

What, they stayed in DC for the schools? Or for the lack of voting rights?

The arguments against sidewalks sort of tumble out of opponent’s mouths, with all kinds of illogic. This is like country in the city, yes, and a ranch house makes your .2 acre lot a ranch. Nobody walks around here, uh, ever wonder why? We need curbs, not sidewalks, so pedestrians can’t get out of the way of cars? Lastly, the venerable, but that’s the way it’s always been! makes its appearance, proving opponents to be examples of a certain five-letter acronym. You can hear how literally incoherent their arguments are in this video.

On the other hand, there are almost as many proponents, since many residents do see the public obligation to make the streets safe and accessible for all modes of traffic. It’s heartening to see proponents of reasonable growth out and advocating their position. There’s not much of a worry that Hawthorne will become infected with the dread contagion of urbanism, since it’s pretty far from any sort of rapid transit and unsuitable for larger growth. It’s always going to be a side neighborhood, one whose character will not be negatively altered by allowing people to walk comfortably around their neighborhood.