Search results for "metro"

Placeholder Alt Text

Grand (Central) Slam for MTA
Donald Trump’s Grand Central Tennis Club may see its last baller this spring. According to the Daily News, the tony courts, long frequented by politicians, celebrities, and tennis pros, will be closed to make way for a new rest area for Metro-North conductors and train engineers. Trump has leased the space from Metro-North for 30 years, paying $4 a square foot, about 4% of the average Grand Central going rate.

The courts, above Vanderbilt Hall on the third floor of the terminal, are in a once-unoccupied attic area that allegedly served as a ballroom until it was converted to CBS broadcast facilities in the late 1930s. (The first episodes of “What’s My Line?” and Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” were broadcast there.) In 1965, Hungarian immigrant Geza A. Gazdag founded Vanderbilt Athletic Club in the space, building two courts on the former soundstage and converting the broadcast studio to a lounge. A year later, he put in a 65-foot indoor ski slope next to the courts.

After it changed owners in 1970, the club underwent a $100,000 Dorothy Draper redecoration. Though some reports indicate the commuter railroad could open a new tennis club that would earn several times what Trump has paid, it remains to be seen if the new employee lounge, to be equipped with bunk beds, lockers and showers, will retain any of Draper’s modern baroque stylings.

Placeholder Alt Text

In The Swim
Not your parents' waterfront: 184 Kent Avenue, a conversion of the former Austin Nichols warehouse, will include landscaping and a promenade.
Courtesy Scape

New York’s waterfront building boom has been a bonanza for developers, but the resulting public space has often been a letdown: monotonous promenades, rigid bulkheads, ever-present guardrails, and nary a spot to quaff a beer.

And so after getting an earful from landscape architects, developers, and environmental engineers, the City Planning Commission has drawn up its first waterfront public access zoning overhaul in 15 years, aiming for higher-quality public space that’s more flexible and sustainable. The outlines of the plan, which was the subject of a March 4 public hearing, have been widely embraced as a badly needed update to the existing code.

“In super-broad stroke, it’s a great step forward,” said Roland Lewis, president of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. “In New Jersey, a lot of their esplanade functions as a front yard for luxury condominiums. This new addition to the zoning code is a step away from that. They’re trying to make the waterfront a communal resource for all of us.”

Toll brothers' new northside piers condo complex in williamsburg includes new waterfront landscaping and a pier.
COURTESY FXFowle
 
 

The main thrust of the 117-page amendment is to break down the uniform quality of many new waterfronts and allow for more creative uses of the edge. “In standard New York City zoning, there is one water’s edge, and it has to have a 42-inch-high railing,” said Donna Walcavage, principal at EDAW and landscape architect for Williamsburg’s Northside Piers complex, designed by FXFowle. By contrast, the new code permits a variety of edge options such as boat launches, get-downs, and tidal areas. Other improvements include more meandering pathway configurations, moveable seating, and fewer visual barriers. The plan also dispenses with an unimaginative list of plants that had been deemed fit for waterfront use, and allows landscape architects to make their own more sustainable choices that include native plants. “It’s much easier to create an ecosystem that responds to water,” Walcavage said.

Under the new code, developers would have the option to transfer public waterfront land to the Parks Department, and make annual payments to the city for site maintenance. The North 5th Street pier and esplanade at Northside Piers is the first transfer of this kind, which would seem appealing to developers, who also get to transfer the public space liability. In return, the Parks team is brought into the design process at an early stage. “To get our plan approval, we had to come to an agreement with the city about the transfer of the whole waterfront,” said David Lee, project architect at FXFowle. The result is theoretically a public space more tightly woven into the open-space fabric of the city.

While many designers support the plan’s goals, some wonder whether the amendment’s fine-grained design standards are the best way to achieve them. “I think the biggest concern about these regulations is that they’re incredibly prescriptive,” said Elena Brescia, partner in the landscape architecture firm Scape, whose waterfront design for Williamsburg’s 184 Kent Avenue, next door to Northside Piers, is now under construction. “It’s design by calculation. A certain number of benches are required per square foot, a certain number of trees are required per square foot,” she said, concerned that the result may not add up to the intended effect. “Even though there may be a boat launch thrown in, much of what is prescribed here is about having the same experience everywhere.”

On the bright side, the new rules do encourage the holy grail for many waterfront boosters: more cafes. “They’re allowing for more flexibility, and more commercial viability on the waterfront,” Lewis said. “It’s remarkable how few waterfront eateries there are in New York City. It’s almost shocking.”

Placeholder Alt Text

A New Infrastructure: Jury Convenes/Winners Saturday
It finally happened! The jury for the AN/ SCI-Arc design competition A New Infrastructure: Innovative Transit Solutions For Los Angeles met at SCI-Arc on Monday to pick the winners. They selected from 75 professional and student proposals from the U.S., U.K., Estonia, Italy, and France. The winners will be announced this Saturday at 2pm at SCI-Arc (960 E. 3rd Street, Los Angeles), followed by a panel with the jurors and an exhibition of the top proposals. The event is open to the public. Jury members included Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, and Neil Denari, along with Aspet Davidian, the Director of Project Engineering Facilities at LA METRO; Cecilia Estolano, Chief Executive Officer of CRA/LA; Gail Goldberg, Los Angeles Director of Planning; Roland Genik, Urban Planner and Transit Designer; and Geoff Wardle, Director of Advanced Mobility Research at Art Center College of Design. And after seven hours, two meals, hundreds of discussions, and over 150 boards (ranging from highly practical to intensely surreal), the group picked its top choices. Hats off to them for their herculean effort! Come downtown on Saturday to see the winners and to enjoy the festivities!
Placeholder Alt Text

Data Decor
Mensa Moltke
All photos courtesy SFMOMA

When you first hear the premise behind much of Berlin-based architect Jürgen Mayer’s work, it seems like a joke. Most of it, explains the text to his eponymous show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), comes from an investigation of data protection patterns: those sets of numbers, shapes, letters, or symbols used on the insides of pay slips and IRS envelopes to hide the information inside. The patterns, writes SFMOMA’s architecture and design curator Henry Urbach, “recapitulate important properties of architectural surfaces—such as the way boundaries control movement and visibility across space—while providing a contemporary language of ornament.”

It’s no joke. This “language of ornament,” inspired by what appears to be a random exploration, has led to some of the most intriguing formal designs in the world. Clients in Europe have embraced the conceptual practice of his firm, J. Mayer H., and built or are building over 35 of his projects, which move the already tenuous line between fine art and architecture that much closer to the side of art.

At first look, the presentation of his work seems equally ridiculous. Three huge, white, abstract plaster sculptures that slightly resemble dogs sit among a crisscross of floor and ceiling graphics, projected images of Mayer's work, and video clips of these protection patterns, all accompanied by buzzing, race-car-like noises. As you linger, the impact of the work seems to grow in significance.


Stadthaus scharnhauser park

The most obvious connection comes from the videos of the work itself, beamed from openings in the sculptural installations that, it turns out, are themselves giant versions of the data patterns. The slideshows capture misshapen architectural forms such as the fractured, off-kilter Court of Justice in Hasselt, Belgium; the mushroom-like Metro Parasol in Seville, Spain; and the web-like Mensa Moltke, a student canteen at the Karlsruhe University in Karlsruhe, Germany. Images of some of his sculptures, like his wavy green blob called beat.wave for the Pulse art show in Miami, are difficult to distinguish from the architecture.

Shots of the buildings and sculptures are mingled with images of the data protection patterns, also projected and warped, on small TVs built into the sculptures and drawn on the floor and ceiling. If you listen carefully, the abstract patterns inform the hectic sounds around you. Every part of the show is made up of these patterns, which infuse and overwhelm the senses.


Danfoss universe

They also make the point that this formal investigation, while perhaps random, has the capacity to create and warp just about anything. Mayer is a master at studying and manipulating pure form and pattern, and the potential outgrowths of this investigation seem endless. They produce designs made possible with today’s sophisticated building and computer technologies. With the help of engineering firms like Arup, which contributed to several of his structures, they also showcase the fantastic structures that this combination can create. In Mayer’s architecture, this investigation of data patterns epitomizes a desire for new, integrated ornament, and crystallizes in built form the chaos of our times.

The show, like most architecture exhibitions, is hemmed in by the limitations of trying to capture an art best experienced in person. But its array of media provides ample inspiration to begin thinking about the possibilities of Mayer’s work. If this degree of thought can go into a building’s envelope, imagine how Mayer’s talent could transform buildings as integrated systems, or conceive of whole urban environments.

Placeholder Alt Text

iToldya So
So it turns out they've finally approved designs for the Apple Store in Georgetown. As we speculated, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson came up with a perfectly appropriate glassy-historicist design, as they already have in places like Soho and Boston. The thing is, after a year-and-a-half of deliberating over designs for the project, and rejecting four previous proposals, what the Old Georgetown Board approved looks suspiciously like what was presented 18 months ago. It's basically the same as the previous proposal from February, except that columns were added to the entryway to make it not quite so glassy. And we thought New York was bad. (h/t ArchNewsNow)
What a difference a month makes. (Washington Post)
Placeholder Alt Text

The New Green Monster
Cook + Fox's winning design proposal for One Congress Street in Boston.
Courtesy Raymond Property Company

A major Boston developer has proposed replacing one of Boston’s biggest eyesores with one of the largest, greenest developments in city history. The Raymond Property Company has filed a proposal with the city for One Congress Street, a four-million-square-foot office, residential, and retail development. The project would redefine the skyline, with two towers reaching 42 and 52 stories that rise from a series of smaller buildings intended to mask their scale. The developer selected Cook + Fox as designer from a shortlist of five notable firms.

If realized, One Congress will replace the Government Center Garage, a 150-foot-tall, two-football-field-long concrete bunker that spans Congress Street and slices the Haymarket area in two. Like its Brutalist neighbor City Hall, the garage was designed by Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles.


The infamous Government Center Garage.
All images courtesy Raymond Property Company

“We have been working with the community for months and are excited to kick off the official public review process,” said company chairman Ted Raymond. “In the estimation of most people, the garage has outlived its appeal and today serves chiefly as an eyesore, a Berlin Wall that separates the Bulfinch Triangle and the West End from the North End and downtown.”

Rebecca Mattson, Raymond’s chief operating officer, said that choosing a team of world-class architects was of paramount importance. “Boston doesn’t build that often, and Boston doesn’t build big that often, so we really wanted this to be something special.” Raymond’s selection process for the invited competition, initiated in December, was very direct: two firms were chosen for their high-rise expertise—SOM and Gensler—two for their iconic status—Foster + Partner and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture—and one for its “cutting-edge work”—Cook + Fox, whose Platinum LEED-seeking One Bryant Park Raymond especially admired.


Office for Metropolitan Architecture

Raymond has been developing in and around the neighborhood surrounding the garage for years, and so the developer spent months meeting with the community, seeking both public input and public favor. This led to a planning study with local firm Chan Krieger Sieniewicz that set rather strict guidelines for the five firms: the two towers, rising from a human-scale plinth, plus two smaller towers across Congress Street on scale with the plinth. Still, the results varied greatly, from Gensler's cellular volumes to OMA’s sardonically conventional boxes. “We wanted someone who could do green, iconic, and buildable,” Mattson said. “The question is, who can do those three best?" The answer proved to be Cook + Fox.

Principal Rick Cook said his firm's design casts an attentive eye toward its surroundings. The strands of each tower are arranged to avoid casting shadows to the Rose Kennedy Greenway while the terra cotta cladding of the plinths, which are filled with active retail and civic uses, are gestures to the brick vocabulary of the city, as well as home to some 2,000 mandatory parking spaces.

One side of the 52-story tower is cut exactly perpendicular to the sun for maximum photovoltaic penetration. "That's basically how the buildings were formed, by the environment," Cook said. The towers' undulating elevations also create varying plans from floor to floor, allowing for unique configurations in what are tentatively planned to be a pair of office towers, though one could be a hotel or apartment building, as the development climate will eventually dictate.


SOM

Cook said that for him, the true appeal of the project was the way it would repair a longstanding rift in Boston's urban fabric. When the garage was completed in 1961, it was one of many barriers in the downtown landscape. Following the recent transformational success of the Big Dig, however, which buried the Central Artery and the elevated subway tracks, the garage is all that remains, looming over the neighborhood. "It's the last super-damaging artifact left from the downtown urban renewal of the 1970s," said Tim Love, a principal at UTILE, which is preparing a development study of the Greenway.

Raymond has set a tight deadline for the project. In January, the Environmental Protection Agency is set to move out of a two-story commercial addition that was built atop the garage in 1991, the garage's first vacancy in 20 years. Raymond has said that if it does not have most of its approvals in place, it will simply re-lease the space, since revenues from the parking spaces and office rents are considerable. (Raymond bought the garage in January 2007 for $243 million.)


Gensler

Love said that, given the nature of Boston development, where every project is negotiated with the city on the basis of public benefit, it will be challenging but far from impossible for the project to get approved as proposed. “It’s practically the perfect case study of Boston planning and development,” Love said. “Basically, Raymond is asking, ‘How much do you want this garage to go? What are you willing to give us to take it down?'"

The developer has a powerful ally on his side in the locals and civic groups who loath the garage. “It draws the line on downtown, which is fine—unless you’re on the wrong side of the line,” said Bob O’Brien, executive director of the Downtown North Alliance, making clear where he and his beloved West End fall. "We've become terra incognita, the other side of the map." O'Brien, Love, and others said that in spite of the project's massive scale and scope, it has received generally favorable reviews from the public.


Foster + Partners

Assuming One Congress receives approval from the city, one thing the developer is not worried about is financing. Raymond has partnered with the Lewis Trust Group, a British real estate investment firm, and the National Electrical Benefit Fund, the pension fund of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, both of which have been thus far spared by the recession. “It’s sheer dumb luck we picked them as partners, but thank God,” Mattson said.

Despite such the public and financial support, some politicians have objected, most notably Michael Flaherty, a city councilor running against four-term incumbent Mayor Thomas Menino. He has seized upon Raymond's proposal to include two adjacent parcels in the development, one occupied by a police station, which was recently refurbished for $5 million, and an NStar substation. Raymond conferred with both the city and NStar about its intentions, though no formal deals have been struck. Still, Flaherty has called it a sweetheart deal for the developer.

Politics aside, Peter Smith, principal of Global Urban Solutions and a co-chair of the Boston Society of Architect’s Urban Planning Committee, said that while much work remains to be done, he believes Raymond is headed in the right direction. “They“ve got to work through it with all the stakeholders, dot all their ‘i’s’ and cross all their ‘t’s’,” Smith said. “But in that respect, they’re on the right track."

Placeholder Alt Text

Still Standing
The TVCC Building after the fire, with the CCTV Building looming at right.
Peiyu liu/Flickr
 
Following the spectacular fire that consumed Beijing’s TVCC Building on February 8, questions immediately surfaced about the famed structure’s fate. Would the 141-room Mandarin Oriental hotel be rebuilt? Given the portentous nature of the fire, which was ignited during New Year’s celebrations, would anyone stay if it were? What about the insurance money?

But above all else, the question was not would Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren’s 522-foot tower be rebuilt, but could it even be done? The Office for Metropolitan Architecture and Mandarin Oriental declined to comment, pending a full investigation. Meanwhile, the project’s engineer, Arup, released the following statement: “Until the full facts emerge, we can’t speculate on the causes of the fire or the extent of damage.” Fortunately, engineers not involved in the project were willing to shed some light on the science and history of fires in highrise structural steel buildings.

Zara-Arshad/Flickr
 
Details of the Fire damage.
nklausberger/Flickr
 
 

First off, the taller the building and the higher the fire, the better: taller structures have more steel to dissipate damaging heat, and a higher fire means less load to destabilize steel columns. “Think of it as a ten-pound steel box versus a one-pound steel box,” said Borys Hayda, managing principal at DeSimone. “The more massive element needs ten times as much heat put into it to reach the same temperature as the smaller one.”

And while it might seem that OMA’s gravity-defying structures could render them prone to collapse, Hayda said that in the case of fire, complexity helps, because it typically means more structural members are available to provide redundancy. It also helps that the building is a hotel, which means shorter spans—more rooms—and thus more columns and heat dispersion. Another factor in keeping the temperature below the critical 400-500 degree threshold is “blow out.” “If windows start breaking, there’s a way for the heat to get out, and it can be fine,” said Andrew Mueller-Lust, principal at Severud Associates. Photos of TVCC showed most every window blown out.

As to historical precedents for reuse, Mueller-Lust and others pointed to One Meridian Plaza, a Philadelphia office tower stricken by a fire on the 22nd floor in 1991. The fire raged for 18 hours, burning out one floor before moving on to the next, until it ran out of fuel at the 38th floor. Testing showed that the building could have been restored, but no one was willing to reoccupy it. It stood for years before finally being razed.

The same fate may await TVCC. “As I read the Chinese newspapers, according to the official statements, the main structure is very little damaged,” said Tian-Fang Jing, principal at Weidlinger Associates. While that might be the case, the greater issue remains whether anyone would willingly go into a repaired TVCC.

And if the building is structurally sound, reinforcement may be warranted. “If you’re forced to add so many columns that the space becomes economically unfeasible, that’s no good,” Hayda said. “And if you need to reinforce the elevator core, and the elevators won’t fit, or the stairs are no longer wide enough, that just can’t be done.” He added that TVCC could turn out to be cheaper to repair than replace. But before that is even an option, those doing the number-crunching are going to be engineers—and not accountants—to make the most important call.”

Policy, The Making Of

Days before President Obama unveiled his $275 billion fix for America’s foreclosure crisis, Shaun Donovan, the new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), ticked off the grim statistics: 2.3 million foreclosures last year; entire metropolitan areas—Stockton, Las Vegas—with ten percent of their housing stock foreclosed; distressed sales accounting for 45 percent of all homes sold in December.

And yet as Donovan delivered a sneak preview of the administration’s housing agenda at a New York University conference on February 13, he cheerfully admitted that the herculean task before him—restoring the federal government’s tattered credibility on housing issues—remains something of a work in progress. “It’s early for me to be out speaking,” Donovan said with a laugh. “No speech writer, no secretaries—it’s a little bit of a risk.”

Departing from the script was precisely the point at the two-day conference, called A Crisis Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Transforming America’s Housing Policy and packed with policy heavyweights like former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros and Rockefeller Foundation president Judith Rodin. While acknowledging the gravity of the crisis, Donovan laid out broadly ambitious goals that should please longtime HUD critics and advance Obama’s campaign pledge of a tightly orchestrated urban policy.

Most importantly, Donovan has landed a seat at the table with top advisors Lawrence Summers, Timothy Geithner, and Christina Romer as they’ve grappled with the nation’s economic collapse. The recovery bill, Donovan said, contains $13.6 billion that will flow through HUD—equivalent to nearly one-third of the agency’s annual budget—to renovate public housing and rehabilitate foreclosed properties, among other initiatives. He also said that investments would bolster the National Housing Trust Fund and tackle housing discrimination, something with which Donovan gained experience as New York’s housing commissioner. (In Jamaica, Queens, 60 percent of all 2007 mortgages were subprime loans, he said, though many applicants had credit scores that should have qualified them for prime mortgages, suggesting that lenders targeted minorities.)

But perhaps Donovan’s most far-reaching plans would transform HUD into a force for sustainability. “Just as the FHA catalyzed the 30-year mortgage generations ago, we can catalyze an enormous change in the way that housing is built and renovated,” he said, noting that insurance programs or loan guarantees could underwrite solar installations or energy-saving retrofits. More ambitiously, he said, “HUD must be the leader within the administration on thinking about the locational choices that our cities and our metropolitan and rural areas are making, and the impacts they have on climate change.” To that end, Donovan is launching a HUD office of sustainability to be headed by deputy secretary Ron Sims, the Seattle-based county executive who has pioneered the use of coordinated housing, zoning, and transportation policies to attack rampant sprawl.

Elsewhere at the conference, Bruce Katz, the Brookings Institution evangelist who led Obama’s HUD transition team, said that the still-nebulous White House Office of Urban Affairs, to be led by Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión, would play a key role in uniting balkanized agencies. Katz blasted the Transportation Department, for instance, calling it “the most unreconstructed agency in the federal government today” as it subsidizes the flight of jobs from urban centers. “DOT and HUD should be joined at the hip,” he said. “[Transit-oriented development] should become the norm rather than a heroic act.” Katz, who will continue advising the administration on urban strategy, sees the White House office as both bully pulpit and think tank, driving innovation across agencies that have been all too friendly toward the status quo. “If this office ends up being a concierge for bankers, then this is a failure,” he warned.

It remains to be seen how much headway the team can make in crafting what Katz called “a radically different approach to federalism.” But with the fate of American neighborhoods hanging in the balance, the crisis may indeed be a now-or-never chance to act, as Donovan soberly noted in his remarks. “We have an enormous opportunity, but it will not come again,” he said. “If we waste it, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.”

 

After the Gold Rush

When banks in Iceland filed for bankruptcy in October and credit lines dried up, Iceland’s building industry went into a tailspin: Contractors halted construction, developers cancelled new projects, and thousands of foreign construction workers left the country almost immediately.

Next to fall victim were architects. As construction ceased, architecture firms saw an almost complete drop-off in new projects. By the beginning of November, architecture firms across the country announced massive layoffs. As of February 1 of this year after a three-month grace period, an estimated 90 percent of Icelandic architects became unemployed.

The past ten years in Iceland have seen unprecedented residential and commercial real estate development. Inflated interest rates in Icelandic banks attracted large sums of foreign investment, and as money poured into the country, Icelanders began to invest in real estate. Housing prices skyrocketed, inciting a manic building boom that architectural critic Guja Dögg likens to the Wild West. “People were just building and building, with no consideration for what anyone else was doing. It’s like they were all cowboys shooting into the air, and now the bullets are raining down on them.”

Now, as Icelanders sift through the fallout of a decade of frenzied real estate speculation, much of the detritus is new construction. Large swaths of suburbs surrounding the Reykjavik metropolitan area stand empty, many of the houses only partially built. In downtown Reykjavik, construction is halted on the 1.07-million-square-foot Icelandic National Concert & Conference Center, a 30 billion ISK (approximately $500 million) joint venture between Portus and the Reykjavik city government.

The current state of the real estate sector stems from the fact that despite its old history, Iceland is essentially a young country—it declared independence from Denmark only 64 years ago—and lacks an established urban development practice. The Reykjavik city planning authorities were largely unequipped to oversee the sharp increase in construction, leading to embarrassing city planning missteps.

Olafur Mathiesen, an architect at the firm Glama/Kim who now finds himself unemployed after 12 years, explained that the lack of coordination between local communities and zoning and planning practices led to a form of ad-hoc urban development, resulting in a suburban sprawl of shoddily built multi-family housing, out-of-place highrise apartments, little green space, and a road structure so complex that it makes public transportation slow and inconvenient. Past precedent suggests that this kind of development can lead to a serious decrease in standard of living, a cultural reality foreign to a country that has always prided itself on its progressive social policy and fluid class structure.

Sigrun Birgisdottir, director of the architecture department at the Icelandic Arts Academy, explained how the lack of urban organization is symptomatic of the Reykjavik planning authority’s difficulty administering such large-scale development. “The regulation system—both financial and political—was accustomed to a small-scale sense of the town,” she said. The authority literally was unable to control or account for most of the construction happening in the past few years.

The overwhelming feeling among Icelandic architects is that the architects themselves, as well as developers and city planners, should have known better. “There really has been no organized Icelandic architecture community,” said Birgisdottir, a situation that contributed to the current state of affairs. Until 2001, when the art school opened its undergraduate architecture program, there was no institution to foster conversation among architects. “Icelandic architects would return from studying abroad in their late 20s and then meet each other for the first time as professionals in competition with one another,” Birgisdottir explained.

Guja Dögg agreed, adding, “That doesn’t exist among my generation of architects.” Birgisdottir, Dögg, and Mathiesen are all hopeful that the current state of the architectural industry will allow the country’s architects the time and space to have these long-overdue conversations.

Bjorn Martensen, an architect and civil engineer, is organizing a team to create a review of quality control and assessment processes, while another group is planning a workshop where architects, industrial designers, and other creative professionals can come together to foster innovative design. Some firms are considering an arrangement with the government whereby architects would continue to work while receiving unemployment benefits if the firm could provide ten percent of the salary.

KRADS, a firm established by a group of young Danish and Icelandic architects with offices in both countries, is probably best poised to navigate the ongoing recession. Since opening the office in 2006, the group has been pioneering a new, collaborative type of architectural practice. “We do a little bit of everything,” said member Mads Bay Moller, “architecture, prototyping, conceptual design, and graphic design. And we like to bring people from outside of architecture into the conversation.” When they were recently asked to design a church, they brought on a priest as consultant. “Reykjavik is a super-interesting place,” Moller continued. He said the creative energy and abundant natural resources make it “a great atmosphere to generate new approaches to architecture.”

Placeholder Alt Text

City Limits
An accessory dwelling unit in Seattle, built in 2001, is part of an effort to create affordable granny flatss in aging neighborhoods.
Courtesy Wiley

Strolling among the villas surrounding Regent’s Park, one wouldn’t think of the area as sprawl; it’s obviously urban, and it lies in the heart of London. But when it was built on the Prince Regent’s land in 1818, it was decidedly outside the city. London grew through successive waves of sprawl, long before the arrival of cars and even the Underground, and Regent’s Park was one of many outlying areas to be absorbed into the metropolis over time.

Generally considered an American, postwar phenomenon propelled by the automobile, sprawl actually extends far back into history, past 19th-century London to ancient Rome and even beyond, to Ur and Babylon. On a per-capita basis, suburban life has been attainable by many more Americans in the past 60 years than it was to anyone else before, and sprawl evolved over time due to rail, automobiles, zoning, energy costs, cultural mores, and other factors. But despite the changing nature of sprawl—and of cities—throughout history, it remains, for better or worse, part of the process of urbanization.

Retrofitting Suburbia, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, is the latest volume to tackle the complex problems of this urban-suburban flux. The authors rightly explain that the city and suburbia are intimately interrelated rather than oppositional, and that suburbia is constantly evolving, with many older suburbs around the United States today ripe for urbanization. Further, they describe an ongoing evolution of the U.S. into a series of polycentric regions: a more diffuse and decentralized web of smaller, more numerous urban centers than in the past (not a new concept, but worth discussion). They thus put their finger on how suburbs change into cities.

The authors define “urban” and “suburban,” and argue that urbanization is desirable. They suggest that the solution to aging suburbs is simply to redesign them by introducing streets and mixed-use zoning overlays. They present several recently completed and ongoing projects in which suburban areas have been “urbanized,” or made denser and more diverse, in terms of use, than before. Most of the projects are developer-driven and involve large, single properties, and many are not much more than updates of obsolete malls into “lifestyle” centers with fake Main Streets. Yes, some residential units have been added, and perhaps these projects can shift our attitudes about city living. But the authors are not convincing in this regard.

More importantly, Dunham-Jones and Williamson, associate architecture professors at Georgia Tech and the City College of New York, respectively, pay little attention to the market pressures and politics that go into urbanization. Granted, as the book’s title suggests, the authors are primarily interested in design; but to treat suburbia as a design problem is to misunderstand suburbia. They also barely discuss the crucial role of the public sector. Once in a while, there’s a nod to the impact of government action, such as the construction of transit systems, that elicits a positive private-market reaction. The authors thus overlook one of the primary dynamics of urbanization. No one expects a silver bullet for the suburbs—far from it, since the process of urbanization is complex and often inscrutable. But this book purports to provide solutions, and it doesn’t.

Retrofitting does present a useful survey of urban planning literature, covering everything from Levittown to Richard Florida’s “creative class” theory. It also discusses examples of older, suburban areas that are being updated to emphasize public spaces, walkability, and the like. The book lists case studies for several types of suburban developments: strip malls, indoor malls, residential communities, edge cities, and office and industrial parks. The book organizes the case studies by morphology, a term that in itself reduces communities to nothing but shapes. I would argue that organization of the case studies by other characteristics might make more sense. For instance, an office park and an indoor mall might be much more similar in terms of the politics and financing that enabled them than either would be to their morphological sisters. Why not discuss three or four types of economic and political conditions that can lead to retrofits, rather than focusing on their design characteristics?

Elsewhere, the authors include a few winners of design competitions. They devote one page to a Georgia Tech team’s winning entry in an Atlanta Future 2008 competition. The page displays two maps of the Atlanta region: The first shows the region today, and the second shows the team’s vision for Atlanta in one hundred years. The vision is lovely—there’s a lot of green in it—but the maps lack even a key to explain the red, pink, white, and green areas, let alone an explanation that appreciates the complexities of the proposal. All we learn from the caption is that the team (which included Dunham-Jones) apparently proposed urban agriculture, biofuel farm/ power plants, and several other components. All of these ideas sound good, but how real are they? What about the politics inherent

in them? How much would their implementation cost? And who did the team propose to implement its vision?

The case studies themselves are so predominantly single-owner developments that the reader learns little about the impacts—much slower, yes, but also much more powerful—of public-sector investments, especially in transit. The authors recognize the power of such investments, at one point noting that “transit in suburbs is what makes densification feasible,” rather than the other way around, and they discuss the impacts, for example, of the boulevardization of arterials. But they spend comparatively little time on public interventions, and never fully explore the leverage these strategies can provide, nor the challenges they present.

This book is important and well-intentioned, and its subject is certainly deserving. I would love to see a revised edition of Retrofitting Suburbia (a wonderful title, by the way) that is shorter, more coherently organized, and less textbookish, with fewer, more in-depth case studies. But the larger problem remains. The notion that urbanization is merely a design proposition is fundamentally flawed. The changes that are occurring across America result from development pressures and politics. Without these forces, designers aren’t even called into the room—they would therefore do well to understand them better.

Placeholder Alt Text

Who Designed These Buildings?
On Friday, the prolific New York Times metro reporter Jennifer 8. Lee, whose beat seems to include everything from fortune cookies to urban planning, covered a new mixed supportive and moderate-income housing development in Harlem, co-developed by the Fortune Society. Unfortunately for the architects involved, she misattributed the design of the project, and of another recent affordable housing development in Harlem, David and Joyce Dinkins Gardens, to the other co-developer, Jonathan Rose Companies.
courtesy Curtis + Ginsberg Architects
Designed by Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, the 114-unit, 110,000 square foot Fortune Society project includes housing for former inmates as well as moderate-income apartments. The eleven story building, which is designed to meet LEED Gold Standards, features a terraced green roof system, a portion of which is accessible, rainwater harvesting, sustainable buildings materials, and sun louvers over the windows, among other green design elements. “It has wonderful views of the Hudson,” said Roberta Darby Curtis, principal at Curtis + Ginsberg. “For people who have been incarcerated, having access to the outdoors is that much more important,” Mark Ginsberg, the other principal, told AN.
courtesy Dattner Architects
Dinkins Gardens, completed last year, was designed by Dattner Architects, and was also co-developed by Rose. It also includes affordable housing and is topped with green roof. Though the mistake was surely unintentional, the developers, and the architects, behind these projects deserve credit for these cost effective, environmentally and socially responsive projects.

Show MTA the Money

Like the rest of the city, the recent boom years have been good to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, leading to shiny new buses, trains, and megaprojects. But now, with the fifth-largest debt load in the country and the state out of money, the authority is on the verge of jumping the tracks, right into territory it has not seen since the 1970s.

The problem we’re in is the perfect storm of major dedicated taxes all drying up at once,” said Wiley Norvell, communications director at Transportation Alternatives. “The gas tax, the bridge tolls, the real estate tax, the sales tax—they’ve all gone dry. Plus, the MTA’s debt has exploded over the last two years.”

The result is a $1.2 billion hole in the authority’s operating budget, and a potential $20 billion shortfall in the forthcoming $30 billion 2010–2015 capital plan. The press has called it the “Doomsday Budget,” because, short of new revenue streams, it will lead to massive service cuts and fare and toll increases throughout the system.

And if that weren’t bad enough, the $1 billion payment for Hudson Yards was pushed back a year, following a February 4 agreement between the authority and developer the Related Companies. Meanwhile, Forest City Ratner has yet to secure financing for the $100 million it owes on the Atlantic Yards project.

On the bright side, the city’s Congressional delegation has secured between $1.5 billion and $2 billion for the agency in the House stimulus bill, with possibly more to come from the Senate. And, in an act of confidence or hubris, the authority earmarked $497 million on January 30 to complete the Fulton Street Transit Center, designed by Grimshaw and James Carpenter, before the package was even finalized.

It’s enough to make even the steadiest straphanger’s head spin.

“If we don’t solve this problem, we’re shortchanging the economy right now, when we can hardly afford to, and for decades to come,” said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association. He said that as the city has learned in the past, even a year or two of disinvestment can take decades to reverse. Fortunately, the MTA agrees wholeheartedly. “This is probably the most difficult landscape the MTA has faced in a generation,” MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said.

And yet the recession could prove, in some small way, to be the authority’s salvation. Given the dire state of the economy, many politicians appear willing to entertain once-heretical notions. Take the mayor’s congestion pricing plan. It was initially sold as a measure to reduce congestion and pollution, but was ultimately defeated by the state legislature because, in its members’ view, the real purpose was to fund mass transit. Newer proposals, however, such as those put forward by former MTA chair Richard Ravitch—East River bridge tolls, payroll taxes, slightly increased fares and tolls—avoid the bait-and-switch and go right for the money.

Norvell said that compared to last year, the tone in Albany is “markedly different,” with almost no complaints about the payroll tax and a surprising openness to East River bridge tolls. “Oddly enough, the financial crisis has created a lot of political breathing room,” he said. “We’re looking at $2.50 MetroCards, $100 monthlies. Nobody wants his fingerprints on that.”

It will likely be late March before we know whether it is Doomsday or V-Day for the MTA. The federal stimulus package must first be passed, though even that would be but a few nickels in the bucket. From there, it should take a month for the legislature to either endorse Ravitch’s plan, adopt an alternative, or let the MTA go forward with its cuts, which the authority’s board approved in December. Given the state’s budget woes, that remains a distinct possibility.

Transit advocates remained heartened despite the MTA’s predicament. “I have reason to believe it will pass, given my conversations with people in both houses,” Yaro said of the Ravitch plan. Norvell believes the legislature owes it to the MTA. “The system’s been starved by Albany for the last decade,” he said. “The ball is in their court. We hope they make the right play.”