Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tuesday Linkages

The first article today is an interesting one from SmartPlanet about our cognitive maps and getting lost in buildings. They go on to blame architects who have incredibly advanced understanding of space in three-dimensions:

What they found:

  • People navigate differently. Some use contextual clues — “Make a right at the stairwell” — and some use cardinal directions to find their way.
  • Cognitive maps are prone to bias, and can distort reality. Culture and gender are factors.
  • The design of a building exacerbates these effects, thanks to identical-looking corridors, short lines of sight and asymmetrical floor layouts.

The more difficult the building, the more a person must rely on their (imperfect, incomplete) cognitive map.

Take the award-winning Seattle Central Library: the first five levels of the library defy expectations and are all different — so different, in fact, that the outside walls don’t always line up. Sight lines could help ease the shock, but the library’s long escalators skip floors, making it difficult to see where they begin and end.

Interestingly, the researchers says that architects have such strong spatial skills — they make three-dimensional space from two-dimensional blueprints, of course — that they may fail at imagining their design from the perspective of someone with poor spatial skills.

What they are saying is that architects are increasingly pushing the limits of how to comprehend and think about space in 3-dimensions. You might call this innovation. You also might call this selfish. Are they the end user of this space? Often not. The end users typically don't appreciate the mental gymnastics it takes to make a Seattle Public Library or a Denver Art Museum. Dummies. They deserve the vertigo.

I cite these two buildings specifically because I have visited the Seattle Public Library. It was loud and uncomfortable, exactly what you want from a reading room. I'm not typically afraid of heights or have trouble intuiting spatial relationships and suggested pathways. I felt like this building was going to collapse and I wanted out of it as quickly as possible. As for the DAM, many people have left claiming feelings of nausea. One can't say if it was the odd angles of the buildings spaces and corridors, canted for Libeskind's self-gratification or the art within.

Contrast this with the architects and designers in Renaissance times that wanted to understand human proportion, scale, and awareness of space. The designs reflect it.

Design for people. Not other architects or Architectural Record.
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In what might as well be called Pravda, an online journal called "Gensler On" interviews, you guessed it, a Gensler principal about Gensler type of projects, big ones. In this case, it comes off as some sort of cheerleading for times of yore when money flowed like wine into skyscrapers that remarkably no one moved into and banks were healthy and raking in cash and not failing all over the world because of faulty supply driven investments. Run-on, I does it.

The actual article is called, Can Super Tall Buildings Be Green?, which could make for a perfectly fine article if you wanted to argue something beyond "tall is dense" and "tall is aspirational." I'd quote it, but there is really nothing of substance there and I find it hard to believe this was written in this century let alone this decade rather than 1995 or 2005, which the rationale mirrors.

First, tall is dense, yes. But tall can be another form of sprawl. By sending people further up into the sky, that creates demand for services to follow them upward. For example, a 100-story tower will have cafes or coffee shops or "sky gardens" and different things every 20-floors or so. Amazing, we like things close to us.

He undermines his own argument suggesting super tall is necessary for street life and that he's from NYC. The best parts of NYC and Vancouver are not the skyscrapers. It is the street life between the smaller buildings, that don't dominate the sunlight, necessary for actual street life and just plain life, such as trees.

Second, the tall is aspirational argument is another form of quantitative growth that got us into this economic morass. Quantitative growth took on two forms of real estate, outward growth (sprawl - Vegas, Phoenix) and upward growth (Miami Condo towers, Dubai), or even the rare outward and upward like Chinese pop-up cities. All of which are supply-side. There was little to no real demand, which is why they 1) attracted speculation and 2) are now empty.

Furthermore, the entire market was rather nefarious, not just because of the banks handiwork, but because of all of the corrupt 3rd world money finding its way into American, London, Indian, and Chinese real estate. Dirty money and imaginary money is no way to run an economy or build a city.

Your architecture firm, staffed and structured to work on these kinds of projects, has a very short future in its current iteration. I've never thought of Gensler as thought leaders on cities, ever, but that won't stop them from telling you they are and cheerleading for a return to the boom decade of the noughties.

Some day banks will wisen up and start investing only in projects that improve quality of place and are based in real, demand-driven fundamentals. It is in their financial interest to do so.
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To end on two happy notes, we'll shift to places focused on qualitative growth, or the improvement of their cities:

The Irish Times visits Freiburg, Germany looking for lessons:

Prof Kevin Leyden, an American now based at NUI Galway’s Centre for Innovation and Structural Change, was struck by how hard Freiburg has “worked and planned to be energy-efficient and carbon-conscious as well as creating real neighbourhoods with a sense of place. There is also a commitment to green space, playgrounds and local shops”. Dr Daseking, who has been Freiburg’s chief planner for 27 years, said the “breaking point” came in the early 1980s when the city council decided that big shopping malls on the outskirts would be “zoned out”. As a result, smaller shops had the chance to survive and “people get their daily requirements by walking or cycling, not driving”.

One of the stupid things Dublin did, and Freiburg didn’t do, was to get rid of its trams.

As a result, the city’s tramlines – running from north to south and east to west, with the main station as the network’s hub – were extended to serve new “fingers” of development stretching out in all four directions – including new suburbs like Vauban and Riesefeld.

Housing is socially mixed, with rich and poor living in close proximity, on remarkably quiet streets devoid of through-traffic. Children play in green areas or quite safely on the streets. “By building like this, you can influence the use of cars,” Dr Daseking said. “Freiburg has only 440 cars per 1,000 in population, but in Vauban it’s only 85 per 1,000”.

1. Florence
2. Paris
3. Dubrovnik
4. New York City
5. Vancouver
6. Munich
7. Edinburgh
8. Boston
9. Melbourne
10. Sydney
Since it is from Frommers, guessing it is geared to bigger, more tourist destinations. The key to walkability is proximity, density of network (moreso than density of people), which means density of movement corridors, the type of movement corridors that allow for density of networks (grids vs. dendritic highway/arterial), and quality of spaces (streets, sidewalks, plazas, public spaces).