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Reading Between the Guidelines
Dave Reichert / Flickr

Recently, LA’s planning department added new design guidelines to its small lot subdivision ordinance, a measure that allows owners to divide larger lots—once reserved for apartments and larger condos—into smaller parcels. The guidelines outline well-intentioned goals to improve the quality of this important type of housing stock, revolving around issues like site organization, building design and materials, urban form, setbacks, parking, landscaping, and access.

Intelligent requirements include adding permeable paving; designing for pedestrian access; locating parking to the rear of dwellings; and demarcating clear entryways. But the problems lie, as is often the case, with the more subjective requirements, like “enhancing the public realm,” creating “high-quality” environments, and making housing “compatible with the existing neighborhood context.”

These are not bad ideas. Of course they’re good goals. The question is who determines the standards of quality, compatibility, and other very subjective guidelines? As of now the rules leave decisions in the hands of a very small group of people in the planning department’s urban design studio. They’re an architecture-fluent group that I’m a supporter of. But while compromise is often the death of architecture, we’ve also learned that absolute power corrupts, particularly in planning.

For example, a design-savvy developer in LA, who had hired a top tier architect to design a small lot development, told me he was recently informed by an employee in the department that his design was subpar. They told him that he preferred architecture that looked like The Grove, the nostalgic retail development in the city’s Miracle Mile area. Hence the issue: why should urban design and architecture decisions be made on the basis of taste?

Design guidelines can be effective tools, but micro-managing them can lead to a limitation of creativity and a bending of design to the tastes of a few. That can become a bigger problem for architecture when those few are planners, or other officials, or neighbors, not architects. The same goes for Los Angeles’s citywide design guidelines, which I support as an important tool for improving the urban realm and preventing mediocrity. But they too must not become a method for bending style in one direction or the other. The most powerful guidelines outline specific baselines for good design, and don’t wade into subjective aesthetic issues. And if they do wade into subjectivity, decisions should be made by several people, not by any one or two players.

One of the things that makes Los Angeles special is its overflowing wealth of design talent and creativity. Sure we need to establish a baseline to make sure they’re complying with the basic standards of livability and urbanity. To not do that could mean a repeat of the many urbanistic mistakes that have marred the landscape here. But to dictate how architects should design, and to leave decisions about those designs in the hands of too few, is a recipe for limitation and mediocrity.

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It's Time for a Price on Carbon
Graphic shows one day of NYC's carbon emissions in 2010. Each blue orb is about a metric ton of CO2. Annual emissions that year were 54 million metric tons for NYC.
Carbon Visuals / Adam Nieman

In March, about 30 Democratic Senators pulled an all-nighter in the Capitol, speechifying for a collective 15 hours about the need to act swiftly on the issue of climate change. It is a politically contentious position in Congress, where the Center for American Progress reports 90 percent of the Republican leadership denies the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is driving global climate change.

But what is political anathema in Washington is an answer so obvious among economists it has been a foregone conclusion to policy wonks and experts across industries for years: put a price on carbon. This could be done with the cap-and-trade schemes proposed and dashed amid political squabbling a few years ago (a similar scheme successfully cleaned up smog-causing sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides decades ago), but a much simpler way is to just tax greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon dioxide, the gas chiefly responsible for human-driven global warming, is causing global damage, but those responsible for emitting it don’t pay a dime for their privilege to pollute—that is the classic definition of an economic externality. Applying a cost to carbon pollution encourages polluters to cut back, but it would also kick start the industries poised to create innovative solutions to the challenge of the century. That includes urban design and architecture.

Last month AN ran a Q&A with Peter Busby, who initiated the development of LEED in Canada and later revamped sustainable design practices for Perkins + Will. Design standards have changed drastically in just five years, he said, with every project in his global design firm’s many studios materially affected by environmental standards. The days of un-shaded glass boxes in the desert are winding down.


Busby’s one-time home province of British Columbia passed a carbon tax in 2008. Six years later, their economy is doing fine. A “wood first” policy meant to promote the local lumber industry has pushed innovation in timber high-rises, one important way designers might make a dent in the 8 percent of global carbon emissions due just to the production of concrete and steel.

Many companies already factor a carbon price into their internal bookkeeping. They include tech companies like Google and Microsoft, but also giants in the carbon-intensive worlds of retail and even fossil fuel extraction—Wal-Mart, General Electric, and even Exxon Mobil all anticipate carbon taxes in their future budgets.

Several countries have already passed carbon taxes. Sweden, Finland, and Ireland already have them, while plans to enact or continue carbon taxes in Australia, Chile, and Mexico face some political opposition. But the U.S. has to lead, according to Yale University economist William Nordhaus. “It’s ludicrous to think India, China, or Brazil are going to take costly steps when the U.S. is doing nothing,” Nordhaus said at a recent University of Chicago event. “We’ve got to get started.”

In the U.S., the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 set a goal of net-zero energy use in all commercial buildings by 2030. That is an ambitious benchmark, but it is only voluntary. In municipalities where energy standards have been required, they have made important progress in raising awareness, but they have also highlighted a problem with LEED and other prescriptive strategies of environmental design. It is possible to cheat the system. Energy-intensive buildings can earn high marks just for checking off the right boxes—boxes that can also constrain design choices.

A better approach would be a performance-based code, which would judge buildings against environmental standards of resource use—emit more carbon, get a lower rating. Such a system would work like a carbon tax, incentivizing efficiency and letting individuals chart the course to a cleaner future.

Those who claim a carbon tax is a paternalistic affront to freedom or an economic albatross either have not seriously considered the idea, or are being disingenuous to serve political ends. There are many ways to craft such a tax to avoid undue economic hardship. It could be graduated, scale up over time, and even be rendered revenue-neutral by tying the price to an equal reduction in taxes elsewhere. Whether that is from income taxes, the payroll tax, or outmoded government subsidies is a matter for political debate. But the problem now is that the issue is not even on Congress’ lips.

And as designers know well, the impacts of inaction are potentially disastrous. Hurricane Sandy catalyzed the discussion around disaster resiliency, but floods, food shortages, and heat waves could easily outpace our ability to adapt if we do not get emissions under control soon. Planning for an uncertain future is difficult enough. Without a guiding market signal like a carbon tax, we are directionless. It is a foolish strategy to hope we will have the tools to dig ourselves out of a pit whose depth we might not know until it is too late.

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Fundamentally Unstable
Courtesy Venice Biennale

The first Venice Architecture Biennale, Proposition for the Molino Stucky, was staged in 1975 and curated by Vittorio Gregotti. It was not a grand international survey, but a narrowly focused competition to repurpose Molina Stucky, an abandoned flourmill emblematic of the loss of Venice’s industrial economy. It was inspired by the role that architects and others can play in urban renewal and sought to remedy, as Gregotti argued, a “destiny of exploitation and physical and cultural neglect.” In fact, the creation of an architecture biennale in Venice was an outgrowth of public protests at the 1968 art biennale when, as Lawrence Alloway has noted, students and intellectuals gathered that year in the Piazza San Marco and at the Giardini in solidarity with geopolitical events around the world. Artists closed their respective pavilions and turned canvases toward the wall to demand transformations within the institution of the biennale itself, which was attacked for being unresponsive to societal developments. In response to these protests, which closed down the 1968 exhibition and forced the biennale to suspend its prestigious “Golden Lion” award, the directors of the Venetian organization apparently decided that architecture has the possibility of spanning the formalism of art and societal concerns. The directors launched a stand alone architecture exhibition that throughout the 1970s remained a relatively modest and informal proposition—one that intermittently explored the social function of architecture and questions of audience and display.

The biennale in the 21st century is no longer a modest event that foregrounds architectural engagement and social need, but a far more ambitious project that speaks of architectural ambitions, intentions, and the profession’s image of itself. The 14th bi-annual edition of the exhibition, Fundamentals, opened to the public on June 7 and is directed by Rem Koolhaas, who grandly promises it “will include the public in an exploration of the familiar, the erased, and the visionary dimensions of architecture (and) take architecture discourse beyond its normal parameters.” The exhibition is organized by la Biennale di Venezia and chaired by Paolo Baratta. Fundamentals consists of three interlocking exhibitions: Absorbing Modernity 1914–2014, the Elements of Architecture, and Monditalia, which is devoted to the history of Italian architecture and culture. Absorbing Modernity 1914–2014 is the responsibility of the various national pavilions, which Koolhaas has charged with questioning whether architecture, once “specific and local,” has become “interchangeable and global?” It is possible for any national pavilion to spin its exhibition to confront or answer Koolhaas’ questions. The United States pavilion for example, looks at American architectural production exported around the world in the post World War II period and then bring in younger practices to redefine this work for the 21st century.

Elements of Architecture focuses on the fundamentals of buildings “used by any architect, anywhere, anytime: The floor, the wall, theceiling, the roof, the door, the window, the facade, etc.” Koolhaas claims that this close attention to the fundamental or “mundane” elements of architecture are revealed as unstable compounds of cultural preferences, forgotten symbolism, technological advances, and mutations spawned by intensifying global exchange. It takes nothing away from Koolhaas’ research or his curatorial ability to assert that he partially formulated this biennale in reaction to recent Venetian exhibitions, which he thinks focused perhaps too heavily on a “celebration of the contemporary.” It is true that the last few biennales were focused on contemporary production, even if the 12th biennale under Kazuyo Sejima argued that the Internet made it impossible to present truly unknown work and asked architects to create works that directly confronted the viewer with the reality of buildings or space.

The last biennale to focus on history was Paolo Portoghesi’s The Presence of the Past in 1980. Though it is remembered for Aldo Rossi’s traveling Teatro del Mondo, the highlight was the Strada Novissima, which helped begin a worldwide debate around “postmodern” architecture. Portoghesi’s spectacular Strada was like Koolhaas’ ambition for Elements, “not to show images of architecture but to show real architecture.” It remains to be seen if the 14th biennale will have the same impact of Portoghesi’s exhibition, or, given the profound cultural, political, and environmental crisis rolling over the world, whether it is enough to empower architects to engage with these issues or simply return to the past.

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Planning Chicago's Near West Side
Richter's Food Products, 1933, at 1040 West Randolph Street.
chicagogeek / Flickr

It looks like Chicago’s near West Side watering holes could find themselves in the thick of the city’s latest historic district. Under a plan first made public on April 1, Randolph Street and Fulton Market would anchor a landmarked area beginning just west of the Kennedy Expressway and running until Ogden Avenue.

Modern land-use plans for the neighborhood go back at least 15 years, but it makes sense that the city is making a public push now—there might be no other area in the city whose identity has changed so rapidly. With Google moving into the Fulton Market Cold Storage warehouse, West Town’s cultural cachet may have fully fused with the pressure for commercial development cheered on by local tech sector boosters.

Like pretty much any landmark district proposal, this one needs to be carefully considered. Parts of the neighborhood certainly meet the criteria, and a real estate boomlet threatens to overshadow that fact if left to its own devices. But in a downtown neighborhood that has changed so much already, and which is now home to the city’s newest El station, some more density could be a good thing. It just has to be the right kind.

There is no doubt the neighborhood has character. Sepia-tone photos from the 1890s show a dusty Randolph Street packed with horse-drawn produce carts. In 1850, the city split Randolph at Des Plaines Street with the Market Hall building, which was demolished a few decades later. The widened street remained, however, housing an open-air farmers market. Most of the surviving historic buildings along that stretch are about 100 years old now. Randolph’s unique layout gives the strip a singular typology—raised sidewalks, two traffic medians, and sidewalk overhangs contribute as much to the sense of place as the brick industrial buildings.

Since about 2000, the district’s identity as a thriving marketplace and entertainment destination has been in resurgence, this time less as a place for processing food than for eating it. Randolph Street has quickly become the city’s premier dining strip, drawing on the area’s heritage as a hub for wholesale packaging and local farmers markets. Two rows of meat packing buildings still stand, including the handsome red-brick Fulton Street Wholesale Market Company facility—an 1887 headquarters for the nation’s “big three” packers. The 75 buildings up for landmark status under the proposal include popular restaurants like the Girl and the Goat, and the Publican.

The city likened the neighborhood’s prospects as an historic destination to Pike Place Market in Seattle and Cleveland’s Ohio City Market District. “There is a need for development to be more consistent with the area’s low density building scale, traditional loft district architectural character, and urban streetscape,” reads the city’s proposal, which is still awaiting public comment. That statement is somewhat charged, given the attractive real estate market nearby. Downtown high-rises peek over the expressway. Chicago’s hotel boom has followed the nightlife, though only one in the vicinity of Randolph Street is under construction now.

The first step is to draw up a new land-use plan. The City’s initial sketch does not stray too far from existing zoning, consolidating the northern swath of manufacturing-zoned land into the catch-all “innovative industries.” It maintains the predominantly commercial/business use of the bottom two-thirds of the proposed areas, but delineates two distinct historic districts: Randolph Row and Fulton Market. Bridging the two is an eight-block stretch of C2-5 and C3-3 zoning dubbed “stay and play”—surrounding the Morgan station, it would allow for development up to 15 stories. That is higher than Google’s 10-story brick warehouse, the tallest existing building in the West Town neighborhood.

It also forbids housing along Fulton Market. And, naturally, people are concerned about parking. The new CTA stop is a boon to the neighborhood. It makes the area more accessible without meddling in its naturally thriving scene. If there is one thing that will kill a historic district’s sense of place, it is parking podiums, surface lots, and hulking garages. Sure, it will need more parking, but it is past time to relax some of the city’s parking minimums on development, especially if the goal is to preserve character.

The plan is still a work in progress, with The Department of Planning and Development very much inviting feedback from the public.

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Acceptable If Not Noble
John Johansen's Mummer's Theater.
Courtesy Elliott+Associates Architects

In an interview not long before his death about Stage Center (Mummer’s Theater) in Oklahoma City, which at that time was the subject of a preservation battle, John Johansen made a comment about how, in a perfect world, new architectural ideas might become common practice. “Architecture,” he said, “is a language and should have its own derivations and own slang, discarding the worst and elevating the best of it to acceptable if not noble position.”

Well, Stage Center is about to be discarded. In January, OKC’s Downtown Design Review Committee approved plans for its demolition in a 3-2 vote. While Johansen’s building still stands at this writing, it seems this wonderfully idiosyncratic structure—a true one-of-a-kind and perhaps the most important modern building in the entire state—will meet the bulldozers sometime between now and the summer. OKC’s annual Festival of the Arts, which ran this year from April 22 to 27, will loose its chaotic collection of colorful ramps and floating boxes as a backdrop for the first time since 1970. In its place will rise what actually stands in for “acceptable if not noble” architecture today: a bland, glass-encased corporate headquarters for energy company OGE Corp.

What is remarkable about Stage Center is not that it is being tossed out like yesterday’s papers, but that it was built to begin with. In the same interview, Johansen tells the story about how it came about. After he had done the work of completely reconceiving how a performing arts space might function and look—a design that was based upon the build up of componentry in electronic assemblies, combining the separation of services that was trending at the time with his own obtuse tendencies (such as an intentionally confusing circulation layout)—the OKC community recoiled in shock. The oilmen who had put up about half the funds for the theater threatened to withdraw their money unless a more favorable (recognizable) design was presented. In return, the Ford Foundation, which had put up the balance of the funding, got out its “big stick” and told the oilmen that it would withdraw its money so that “you don’t have culture in your place.” The oilmen fell back in line, Johansen’s design was constructed, and OKC got to spend the next 44 years with this loved (hated) masterwork.

The idea of the solo genius blazing trails in the built environment is another thing that has been discarded from Johansen’s time. Contemporary architectural discourse focuses more on ideas of public engagement and collaboration. The notion is that consulting the community/stakeholders where a building is to be constructed will lead to a true architecture of, for, and by the people/institution. While this approach (as opposed to Johansen’s tale above of an elite foundation shoving culture down the throats of the Okies) can indeed produce buildings and spaces that fulfill the median of needs, like other things put together by committee the result more often than not is utter pablum.

The fact of the matter is that the heady period of wild experimentation in which Johansen produced Stage Center is long gone. What we are left with now is the question of whether or not to preserve the monuments of that time. If the answer is yes, then how do we update these structures to meet the needs of our time without rendering them as boring as the usual developer fare that proliferates across the American landscape?

To that point, Ulrich Franzen’s 1968 Alley Theatre in Houston will begin a renovation project this summer at about the same time as Stage Center is put down for a dirt nap in a nearby landfill. While Houstonians can feel proud of themselves for holding onto what is considered a jewel of its kind, they should not feel too proud. The renovation promises to muddle much of Franzen’s concept, adding a zinc-clad, 45-foot-high fly loft that will alter the building’s exterior, swapping the concrete lobby floor for terrazzo, and inserting recessed downlights in place of the continuous coves. The changes are being made in the name of bringing the theater up to contemporary standards. While that may or may not be true, they will also make it feel a lot more like the corporate office buildings that are its neighbors.

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It's About the Street Not the Sky
Proposed supertall towers viewed from Central Park.
Courtesy MAS

Most New Yorkers embrace life in a constantly changing city and do not fear density or tall buildings. But the sudden appearance of super tall, super thin, super luxury apartment buildings rising in Downtown, Midtown, and on the Upper East Side has many asking whether we have the tools to effectively guide development in this city.

In spite of the “Two Cities” rhetoric popularized by Mayor de Blasio, and the backdrop of bailouts and Occupy, I do not want to focus this discussion on wealth or class divisions. Still, as Paul Goldberger pointed out in his recent profile of these buildings in Vanity Fair, they are not apartments in the traditional sense. They are global assets, often unoccupied, rendered in built form. That being said, extreme wealth has been and will continue to be a major driver of built form in New York, the question is how, in what form, and where.

A few years ago there was what seems now to be a rather quaint worry about new office and residential towers overshadowing the Empire State building or blocking views of it. This played out in discussions of Hudson Yards and in the planned Jean Nouvel tower adjacent to MoMA. The important issue with these finger buildings is not about preserving the skyline (a strange idea in a city of towers), but about protecting the street.

The structural advances and market forces driving these buildings have radically changed what gets built and where. Tiny lots no longer prevent great height. Engineering and sometimes tortured cantilevers make site constraints easy to bypass. Community board members often feel ambushed by developers assembling air rights in secret and presenting “as of right” plans for midblock sites on small streets.

Carol Willis, president of The Skyscraper Museum, has curated an important exhibition on the subject: Sky High & The Logic of Luxury. In it she argues that these slender towers are an entirely new type of skyscraper, one native to New York and its regulatory and financial environment. Ever a proponent of building tall, Willis believes these towers are an efficient way of attracting and housing wealth, and that these new forms add to the dynamism of the city’s skyline. She is dismissive of worries about shadows cast over Central Park and other public spaces, calling them quick-moving “sun dial shadows.”

When pressed, Willis concedes that these towers do have an effect on public spaces and streetscapes, but she believes much of the worry is an “emotional” reaction. She believes existing regulations are enough and that FAR still works to balance the needs of developers and the public. Rather than further limiting heights, she suggests a “view tax” on new tall residential buildings, which would benefit parks and public space improvements.

Call me emotional, but I remain concerned about the rapid rise and lack of oversight of these towers. Any new building type requires the careful consideration of its impact on the urban fabric. We look forward to participating in and fostering this dialogue. New York’s streets are the city’s great equalizer. They must be respected and improved, not sacrificed for the few.

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Working Toward Greatness in Los Angeles
Pet projects in LA, like Fentress Architects' Tom Bradley International Terminal and Coop Himmalblau's Central Los Angeles High School #9 must be complemented with excellence around them.
Courtesy Fentress Architects

Despite how much I like living here, I constantly ask myself as I travel around Los Angeles, why do things have to be the way they are? And why do things have to function the way they do?

It appears I’m not alone. This year, LA’s 2020 Commission—a group of former elected officials, lawyers, developers, and other local leaders—has presented two reports that were highly critical of how the city operates and adapts to future changes, despite its rich pool of talent and resources. And while LA is going through an amazing transformation for the better, this is still a theme that is quite familiar to those who have spent some time here.

“Los Angeles is barely treading water, while the rest of the world is moving forward,” the commission, originally formed in 2013, said. “We risk falling further behind in adapting to the realities of the 21st century and becoming a city in decline.”

The two reports were called A Time For Truth, which addresses specific shortcomings, and A Time For Action, which proposes solutions. Among the issues were poverty, unemployment, problematic schools, inflating pension obligations, and troubled ports. Solutions included increased transparency, more realistic budgeting, and establishing commissions to oversee pension distribution and other problems.

And while light on architecture and urban design considerations, the reports did allude to some pertinent issues, calling out LA’s horrendous traffic, which the addition of transit alone will not be able to alleviate; its inability to “get big things done” (such as transforming LAX); its lack of regional coordination; and its inability to update its many community plans and its zoning code to reflect the current economic and social realities.

Of course, these issues are not unique to Los Angeles; they are endemic to most American cities. But Los Angeles, with its sprawling geography and sprawling bureaucracy, has a special place among the country’s major metropolises. At the same time, with an urbanism-savvy mayor and a (mostly) progressive population it has an opportunity to lead the way in addressing the future now.

Embracing the future means making long-term holistic investments, not relying on short-term stop gaps or gimmicks. Not trying to fix traffic through lane widening, or even a few rail lines, but through a coordinated strategy of mass transit, affordable housing, land use changes, and other approaches. Not trying to make development more efficient by simply merging the building and planning departments, but through a more thorough investigation of what works and what does not in the bureaucracy. And not trying to fix troubled infrastructure like LAX, or even the city’s public schools, through a few well-publicized pet projects, but through a comprehensive, and innovative attempt to rethink what these important places can be.

Some in the city may think it can take the easy, or cheap way out. That it can rest on its laurels, leaning on its fantastic climate and its booster-enhanced sense of superiority. But if these issues are not dealt with quickly and thoroughly then the current massive demographic, technological, and societal changes will pass it by. If LA does not face the future and embrace change it will squander a golden opportunity; it will be just another good city that could have been a great one.

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Will De Blasio Make Progress on Design?
Flickr / Caruba

There are some ominous signs in the first days the de Blasio administration indicating that the next four years may not be the best ones for the built landscape of New York City. We pointed out in the last issue of The Architect’s Newspaper that the Domino Sugar agreement between the city and Two Trees development will provide seriously needed new affordable housing units, but at a cost to its surrounding neighborhood. Two Trees agreed to a 30 percent increase in the number of affordable units in the project—up from 660 units to 700 (out of a planned 2,200 totals units), but in return the developer will be allowed an enormous increase in the height of the project. The tallest residential building will now be 55 stories, which the developer claims is in scale because of its relationship to the nearby Williamsburg Bridge. I am not sure if the city bought this notion of appropriate scale—or if it even cares—but it does raise fears of what we might get in the way of new buildings as the mayor moves toward achieving his goal of 200,000 new units of affordable housing.

Will he seek affordable housing no matter its effect on the surrounding neighborhood and the residents who are already in place? We have been told by a New York architect that when he submitted drawings to the Department of City Planning under the Bloomberg administration he would get a personal telephone call from Director Amanda Burden saying, essentially, “we like your plan for the park but could you go back and detail the benches as they don’t seem correct for their use and site.” This attention to detail and concern for the built fabric of the city seems—at least based on this hastily agreed upon Domino plan—no longer to be a major concern to the planning department.

One of mayor de Blasio’s major campaign themes was for the city “to thrive as a 21st-century economy,” and for working families to make ends meet, the “city need(ed) a fast, reliable, and affordable transportation system.” He claimed that the city “needed a more accessible and connected system that links trains, buses, bicycles, commuter rail, and pedestrian spaces into a unified whole that serves every New Yorker. But when presented with the potential failure of the enormously successful Citi Bike share program, de Blasio seemed to be less certain about supporting an integrated system. He would, he said, collaborate with Citi Bike “to help them find ways to be more efficient and more effective,” but he maintained the “tens of millions of dollars” the program needs to keep rolling will not come from the public sector. At this moment, he concluded, “city budget money is not on the table.”

This is an unsettling first reaction from a “progressive” willing to raise taxes on the city’s wealthiest occupants to pay for something he believes important. He apparently does not value the bicycle share program and does not see its potential—maybe because the bike share program does not meet his standards of equality as it seems to be only for the privileged zones of the city. The program, typical of the Bloomberg years, was rolled out in Manhattan south of 59th Street and in gentrifying neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Rather than cutting the program loose it should be enlarged to go from the edge of Yonkers to the Rockaways in Queens and Nassau County, so that it would truly encompass a new vision for the city. The public nature and healthy benefits of the bike share program seem entirely deserving of public support and financing. It would be a shame if, in the future, we think back on the Bloomberg administration as an isolated golden age of creative initiatives, rather than only the beginning of what the city can become in all neighborhoods for all its citizens.

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Back to the Future for Manufacturing
Industrial buildings along the North Branch of the Chicago River in 1970.
William Brubaker / Courtesy Digital Collections, UIC Library

In late February, President Barack Obama announced the creation of two new Midwestern manufacturing hubs in Detroit and Chicago. The program’s first pilot project launched in Youngstown, Ohio, last year. The Youngstown hub is focused on 3D printing. Obama said the goal is to establish 45 such “regional hubs,” which are based on a German model, over the next 10 years. Germany, it should be noted, has 60 such hubs.

Detroit’s will focus on lightweight and modern metals manufacturing, while Chicago’s charge is to lead innovation in digital manufacturing and design technologies. The federal government will provide $70 million in funding to each, the White House said. Private institutions like state and local governments, universities, and industry are expected to kick in $250 million more to what is formally called the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute.

The Defense Department ran a bidding process in which Chicago competed against several other regions of the country. That private funding is apparently what helped Chicago beat out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an aerospace hub in Huntsville, Alabama, in the bidding for the national digital manufacturing institute. Only $16 million of the additional $250 million came from the state, with the rest coming from the likes of General Electric, Rolls-Royce, Procter & Gamble, Siemens, Lockheed Martin, Dow Chemical, and others.

Manufacturing in the Midwest—could this “back to the future” strategy pay off?

After Chicago’s post-industrial fall from grace, Mayor Richard M. Daley championed financial markets and tourism as the city’s new lifeblood. Today that paradigm is largely unchanged, economically speaking, but emerging as we are from a catastrophic financial crisis, it may be time to look elsewhere for support.

The U.S. lost one third of its manufacturing jobs during the 2000s alone, Obama said at the announcement, but has gained back some of those jobs since. Still, the U.S. has more than half a million fewer manufacturing jobs than before 2000, despite recent gains. It is true advanced manufacturing may not be as labor-intensive as the industries that built the American Midwest. But its potential to create new technology is greater. If Chicago captures any of the new businesses that result, it could be a boon for the region. Industrial designers and engineers should be as intrigued by the potential of these manufacturing hubs as are the captains of industry who hope to land the next billion-dollar idea.

Chicago’s hub will be located, fittingly, on the North end of Goose Island—an industrial spit of land in the Chicago River, made into an island to facilitate shipping. Advanced materials and digital manufacturing seem a far cry from the steel, ink, and beer companies that formerly populated the near Northside neighborhood. But the economics remain the same. Managed by University of Illinois offshoot UI Labs, the hub could spur businesses that will support the local economy—not to mention the area’s historic character.

The power of digital design is not news to architects. Today’s designers are immersed in tools that enable new forms, more productivity, and global connections that the old masters could not grasp. Should advanced manufacturing surge in the Midwest, could it help local architectural fabricators reach new markets? Would designers have greater access to new technologies?

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the institute’s research mission “the best insurance policy you can buy.” Beyond banking on innovators flocking to or staying in Chicago because of this new hub’s existence here, it does seem there is some value in laying claim to the patents and products that could come from such knowledge-intensive research and development.

I am skeptical anytime a politician promises somewhere will become “the Silicon Valley of” anything, but that doesn’t mean the direction is wrong. Chicago’s position as a transportation nexus and its relatively diversified manufacturing economy are built-in advantages that this hub idea only strengthens. It is a smart move nationally to rebuild U.S. manufacturing competitiveness. If we reinvest in a livable city and region, it is a move that could payoff locally, too.

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How About Fandango on the Skyline?
Gensler's Metropolis development.
Courtesy Gensler

While Los Angeles is not exactly becoming Shanghai, as was suggested in Spike Jones’ recent film Her, the city is without a doubt transforming into a denser, taller city, and the most obvious harbinger of that change is the skyscraper. In Downtown LA there are several in the works, with others planned in almost every corner of the city.

Skyscrapers are not a new phenomenon here. Most of the city’s skyline was developed in the 1970s and 80s, and this postmodern collection is with a few precious exceptions dated and bland; not a model of design ambition or creativity. Unfortunately the new group of high rises is doing little to distinguish itself either. They are relying on gimmicks, tried and true methods, and cautiousness instead of invention and innovation.

The lineup includes Arquitectonica’s 19-story residential tower for Grand Avenue, a bland box decorated with off-center windows that pales in comparison to the world-class architecture around it. Near Pershing Square, KPF’s ambitious Park Fifth, which, among other things, rethought high-rise living by incorporating generous outdoor spaces, has been replaced by Five Oh, a cookie cutter development made up of 24 and seven story buildings that are indistinguishable from similar projects across the country. In South Park, Gensler’s new Metropolis uses visual facade gymnastics to give it visual syncopation and variety; but this masks what is really a very conventional and hastily conceived building. Still, that project is enlightened in comparison to the new hotels going up nearby, which don’t attempt any urban gestures at all.

Arquitectonica's new Grand Avenue tower.
Courtesy Related Companies

The vast majority of new tall buildings in the center of Los Angeles are timid and formulaic. While units inside will no doubt be luxurious and check off the needed pro formas, the new skyline they are creating will reflect a city that is not interested in taking architectural chances. And much of what’s going up downtown is not tall at all. Most developers opt for wood framed projects less than seven stories high, despite pleas and legislative efforts from officials like downtown councilman Jose Huizar.

Perhaps the most ambitious new tower is AC Martin’s Wilshire Grand, with its wing-shaped glass and steel facade, outdoor roof gardens, and angled pinnacle, a first for a city bound to flat tops by fire code. Still if you compare this or any of the new towers to some of the newest skyscrapers of Asia, there is no comparison. Many (of course not all) of those towers—with staggering forms, technically sophisticated envelopes, generous public spaces, smart connectivity, inspiring sustainability systems, etc.— are shaping cities that are primed to be the innovation centers of the future.

In some ways it is good that Los Angeles will not look like the Los Angeles in Her, which could be a sterile and isolating place (albeit with excellent walkability and a fantastic mass transit system that we’d be lucky to have). Much of the life and heart of a city is formed at the street level. But it would be nice if our tall architecture had a little more chutzpah and a lot more innovation. If we are not willing to take chances with our largest, most symbolic buildings, it says a lot about the direction our city, and our society, is heading.

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Baby and the Bath Water
Stefan Georgi / Flickr

It is clear to everyone who lives in New York City that we need more affordable housing—and not just for the poorest residents of the city. All segments of the society below the top one percent need help to live in this city. Recently, a friend who counts herself as a member of the professional class (i.e. with the ability to secure a bank mortgage) said that she feels that a reasonable place to live for her family seems permanently out of reach in New York. It is one thing to give up copious back and front gardens, garages, and devoted home office space in the suburbs, but when professionals with double incomes cannot afford a place to live with a designated bedroom (not an office sleeping alcove) one wonders who is gong to want to work in the laboratories and workshops of the new high tech campus on Roosevelt Island. In 2014 we seem to be living in a city that, because of its desirability, is choking on its own success.

By now we are all familiar with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious promise for a new direction in housing for the city, particularly what he calls “affordable.” He plans to steer $1 billion of city pension funds into the development of lower-rent units and even plans to raise taxes on vacant land that would close a valuable loophole to developers and hopefully spur development. Further, as we have seen in the recent agreement to jumpstart the Domino Sugar development project in Brooklyn, the new administration has developed a plan where the developer will provide additional new units of low-income and much needed larger family size moderate-income housing.

It is a sad fact that, while Mayor Bloomberg’s administration reached its goal of creating 165,000 units of “affordable” housing, most of these were smaller sized units the majority of which the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development concluded were not truly affordable to most of the residents in the communities where they were constructed. This means that many of these affordable units were not being utilized by those who most needed them and perhaps were taken by young single professionals looking for their first residences after living in college dorms. Further, as this publication pointed out last December, not only did tens of thousand of affordable units go off-line as landlords exited subsidized programs and regulated apartments went market rate, but in Harlem, to pick one neighborhood, property values jumped 22 percent, and in East Harlem, median market rents went from roughly $1,200 in 2002 to $1,900 in 2011.

So the housing market even for the middle class in this city is dire. The Domino Sugar project is a good first attempt to provide relief for the hungry residents of this city. But while we constantly pointed out during Bloomberg’s administration that many of the transformative initiatives undertaken during his mayoralty were in the better-off areas of the city, at least he took design seriously and created a level of public architecture not seen here since the 1930s and the era of Robert Moses. As Molly Heintz’s crit on the Domino project points out, while the city will get some housing relief, the project’s sheer size—now made larger to accommodate more affordable housing—will bring undesirable and unwanted issues to an area that is already being overdeveloped. Bloomberg’s legacy was not as equally spread around the city as one would hope, but it is important to recognize that during his years (and under the enlightened leadership of figures like David Burney and Amanda Burden) the city looked to architecture and architects to bring a new level of quality and urban design sensitivity to every project under its purview. So while we look forward to a new distribution of city projects under Mayor de Blasio’s regime, we fear that he cares little about the architectural quality of his projects. It is possible that we could gain thousands of units of new housing that have all the qualities that the Nehemiah projects brought to the South Bronx and East New York—a sort of second-rate (sub)urbanism. Let us hope the de Blasio administration will bring more affordable housing and middle class housing, but not at the expense of the existing city or many of the valuable design lessons learned during Bloomberg’s time in office.

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Immigrate to the U.S.? Try Detroit
The Detroit skyline.
Nic Redhead / Flickr

At the end of January, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder laid out the latest plan to save the city of Detroit: welcome 50,000 new immigrants, tying special U.S. visas to a commitment to live and work in Motor City for five years. The EB-2 visas would go to an initial 5,000 immigrants, expanding to 15,000 by the final year of the five-year plan. These green cards are typically awarded to immigrants with advanced degrees, or “exceptional ability” in the sciences, arts, or business. “Isn’t that how we made our country great, through immigrants?” said Snyder. “Detroit is open to the world.”

This plan to “jump start” perennially struggling Detroit is worth considering. But it’s not without its faults. Detroit’s population has fallen to 700,000 residents from 1.8 million in the 1950s—50,000 immigrants would not even be one quarter of the people who have left the city since 2000. Facing population loss unparalleled in the U.S., apart from post-Katrina New Orleans, it would seem that any feasible plan to turn Detroit’s fortunes around needs to be big, even unusual. Snyder’s plan certainly is, and it has generated a lot of controversy in turn.

Some have called it “Afro-dilution”—a disenfranchisement of the existing population, which is predominantly African-American. In Detroit, where the scars of white flight and past race riots run deep, Snyder’s grand proposal may come off as a vote of no-confidence in those who have stuck it out and tried painstakingly to rebuild their home. It will amount to as much if the call for immigrants is meant to resurrect the city’s devastated jobs market by itself. We need to know what Snyder and others will do with the tax base they hope to grow with new immigrants, if the plan works.

Some 38 percent of Detroiters live below the poverty line, more than a quarter of a million of them black, and an influx of new entrepreneurs won’t address the underlying reasons for that injustice. Those challenges are tied to what keeps away many people who could move to Detroit already, without an EB-2 visa—current and future Detroiters (wherever they arrive from) need to be sure the governor and others are investing in the city, not hoping eager outsiders will solve those problems by themselves.

But as an appeal to the quintessentially American values of social mobility and reinvention, Snyder’s vision is attractive. Why shouldn’t Detroit try something bold, instead of merely patching over its most recent bruises, emerging hobbled from bankruptcy?

Detroit is not the only Midwestern city looking to turn the tide of long-term job and population loss by looking abroad. If it works there, why not in Youngstown? Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said last year he had seen “up-close the vital contributions immigrants make to our economy.” Every year one half of all new Chicago businesses are started by immigrants, Emanuel wrote in a Sun-Times editorial.

Would it work? Enforcing site-specific visas could prove difficult, but it is not without precedent. Canada does this within provinces. We track employment tied to many visas already, and run loan forgiveness programs tied to public service jobs—the requirement for Detroit could be proof of homeownership, or an annual piece of paperwork. The program as proposed would be unusual, but it can be done without the absurd, dystopian visions of those envisioning giant fences lining city limits.

To some the move is an end-run. Fix problems at home, they say, for Americans already in dire straits. But if Snyder’s supporters are right to say the successes of native-born and new Americans reinforce one another, then we need not pit current citizens against immigrants.

Perhaps the whole discussion is an incitement to federal action on immigration. Snyder wants President Barack Obama to grant the EB-2s through executive action, bypassing the doldrums of Congress. The Senate passed an immigration reform bill last year, but the House of Representatives has fumbled repeatedly.

Detroit needs a lot of things. Immigration is one of them—five percent of Detroit’s population is foreign-born, which is less than the state average and less than half the national average—whether it is through administrative schemes like Governor Snyder’s or legislative reform.