Commentary From the Mile High City

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Joshua Sharf

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August 20, 2008


What luck! Today is the 135th birthday of the eminent Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen. In Europe, he designed very old-world-looking museums, homes, and railway stations. He also did the town hall of Lahti, Estonia, probably because the Estonians were the only other folks who could understand the language. Sadly, they "preserved" this legacy with an annex (we all know how well those turn out), and then tried to restore the original, "in spirit, though not in style."

OK, so far, nice use of brick work, some clever allusions to history, on the whole, a pleasant use of space.

Then he comes to America, and this, this, and this. Not only is it as though crossing the Atlantic turned him into a completely different designer, but the guy's buildings are on historic registers all over the country.

And you can see why. After all, getting the water to tilt that way at Crankbrook must have taken engineering forward decades all by itself. And capturing the spirit of the moment; that church is Minnesota just doesn't look complete without, say, a windswept Hume Cronyn as pastor, standing in the doorway, peering out severly at the gathering storm.

Needless to say, his more famous son (also born on this day), had somewhat different ideas.

Looking at their architecture, you can see how each was a product of his time and place, but also of the materials available to him. What you can't even imagine with brick, you can effortless create with steel and poured concrete.

Curiously, they also both liked to design chairs, which together with buildings, perhaps indicates a measure of control more appropriate to Germans that to Finns.

May 21, 2008

Urban Planning Blogging

The post on top-down urban planning brought a fair amount of response, and led me to seek out some decent blogs devoted to the subject. Here's the haul, and, as always, read at your own risk:

NY Sun's Culture of Congestion: A New York-based blog that is devoted primarily to NYC issues

Peter Gordon's Blog (from his USC website): A blog exploring the intersection of economic thinking and urban planning/real estate development and related big-think themes. Mr. Gordon seems to bring a free-market economist's sensibility to the subject.

City Comforts: Another NYC-based Seattle-based blog, mostly but not always about urban planning and urban living. Covers topics both big and small.

Demographia: takes a free-market, basically libertarian approach to urban living. Sort of the anti-urban planning blog.

Denver Infill: the best blog covering Denver development issues. The author likes planning and big-ticket public projects way too much for my taste, but he certainly covers the waterfront. Or he would, if we had a waterfront.

May 18, 2008

Will the Bauhaus Never End?

Susan Barnes-Gelt is all about urban planning for democracy. Appropriate for the 125th anniversary of the birth of one of the most destructive architects of the 20th Century.

Lileks has done this better, but hey, as long as they keep trying, we'll have to keep batting them down.

For the past six years, George Hoover's advanced design studio/ seminar at the University of Colorado's School of Architecture has addressed the Colorado Station transit site at Interstate 25 and Colorado Boulevard. The graduate course includes readings from the Declaration of Independence, Aristotle, Benjamin Barber, Jurgen Habermas and, of course, Denver's Comp Plan 2000. Students develop master plans and specific designs for the transit site.

Well, I'm glad to see that Denver's Comp Plan 2000 is now on par with Aristotle. And judging by the pace of progress, by the time it's finished, it'll be as old as the Philosopher is now. Of course, a properly structured education would put Constitutional theory and Aristotle first, and then fill in the urban planning gaps with doses of William Whyte and Jane Jacobs. I mean, no, of course we wouldn't want to lock the poor, impressionable minds into outdated modes of thought. But my experience in b-school ethics is that to the extent that Aristotle is deep, he is ignored, and to the extent that he can be used, he's reduced to a sound bite. There's no framework for analyzing him, much less applying his thought, which is worse than useless.

This year's class was extraordinary. Students understood the delicate balance of the individual and community and embraced obligations of every stakeholder, beginning with the architect.

Well, just go ahead and capitalize "Architect" for crying out loud. The architect is only a stakeholder insofar as the success or failure of selling the project determines his future commissions. The architect is a chicken, the people living there are pigs

This group of young professionals considered the elements of a livable city in the context of what they consider the most pressing question of the 21st century: global sustainability.

Pause for a moment of silence for Global Sustainability. Good Lord, we pollute less per capita, use less per dollar of GDP, have fewer children (aside from the cultural suicidal Europe) than the rest of the world. We do this because we've actually advanced past the stage of subsistence living to the point where we can actually worry about cleaning up our messes. So maybe, if Global Sustainability is the issue, we should put the stick to every thieving third-world kleptocratic maniac to stop stealing from their own people long enough to let them develop institutions that are capable of maintaining the water treatment plant after we leave.

They explored how personal, social, political and religious fragmentation and conflict might be overcome in a new, sustainable paradigm that respects and even celebrates differences.

Personal fragmentation can be solved by wearing a helmet and not sticking your foot under a running lawnmower. "Religious fragmentation" is a proper contraction of "Religious figment-of-imagination." I live in the most heavily-Jewish district in the state, and it's barely 10%. I wasn't aware that Catholics and Presbyterians were busily self-segregating. Or by politics, for that matter. As for social fragmentation, this could mean either race or class, but by God, if those rich people are bound and determined to spend their money on more comfortable surroundings, they should be stopped, even if it means piping the neighbors' musical selections in through the air vents.

...All of these elements contribute to the armature of a high-population-density, transit-oriented Denver community. Their urban village becomes a test bed for change, a concept that philosopher Michel Foucault terms "heterotopia."

I can't tell you how happy I am that I don't have the faintest idea what this means.

Foucault uses heterotopia to describe places and spaces that function in non-hegemonic conditions — a campus, prison or hospital where architecture might facilitate the creation of more open and equitable systems.

"In the cells, the prisoners come and go, talking of Michel Foucault." I'm sure just what we need is a more egalitarian prison system. Campuses are already run by the inmates. And at my first (and hopefully last) hospital stay, the staff and doctors were so deferential I was concerned they weren't doing their jobs. You know something, there are places that have hierarchies for a reason.

It wasn't surprising that among these 16 graduate students, one was an organic farmer and another expressed the master plan as a perfectly organized quilt. The group designed living units as small as 140 square feet; beautifully organized and conceived small and large public gathering spots; green pathways; and areas of solitude that juxtaposed perfectly with the high-intensity hardscape of the development.

If Ms.Barnes-Gelt is happy being thought of as organic corn or a little quilted square of fabric, well then, less power to her. The large public gathering spots will be perfect for hearing the message from The Farmer, or The Quilter. And I find it hard to believe that the "areas of solitude" won't be overrun with solitude-seekers if the place is such a high-density area, with solitude available only through the technological bliss of noise-canceling-headphone-laden iPods, in which case why not crawl back into your apartment closet for solitude, which is the real reason for having single-family homes in the first place?

Consistent with their roles as citizens, they designed places where democracy might flourish.

Apparently, democracy only flourishes when we're all stacked up like ants in some 1930s John Cheever apartment building. Soul-crushing conformity is what flourishes in this logical extension of the HOA That Ate My Self. Remember that these ideas come from the same people who think that high-density living alleviates congestion, and will tax that congestion into the suburbs, in order to prove it.

Urban planners have brought us every major step in the destruction of our cities from 1930 onwards. It goes back at least as far as this and this and this. (Try crossing the street in any of them.) Which means they've been trying for at least 70 years to get us to live tidily, and for some reason we refuse to cooperates. Some people never learn.

October 2, 2007

Everything Old... new again. The Denver Club Building, 1954:


And the Horizon Bank Building, Now Open!



Power, Faith, and Fantasy

Six Days of War

An Army of Davids

Learning to Read Midrash

Size Matters

Deals From Hell

A War Like No Other


A Civil War

Supreme Command

The (Mis)Behavior of Markets

The Wisdom of Crowds

Inventing Money

When Genius Failed

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Back in Action : An American Soldier's Story of Courage, Faith and Fortitude

How Would You Move Mt. Fuji?

Good to Great

Built to Last

Financial Fine Print

The Day the Universe Changed


The Multiple Identities of the Middle-East

The Case for Democracy

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

The Italians

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory

Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures

Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud