Aesthetic agendas and the pragmatics of urban development

Hannover (2)

Camillo Sitte’s seminal book, The Birth of Modern City Planning (Vienna, 1889), is focused primarily on compositional recommendations for urban squares, but his preoccupations were partly triggered by his reaction to the master plans for new residential districts in the rapidly expanding cities of late 19th Century Europe. Since Sitte’s intended audience included an emerging class of planning officials, as much as architects, he goes out of his way to critique the status quo and then uses arguments grounded in the pragmatics of speculative real estate development and transportation engineering to make his case.

Modern Systems

His primary goal is to encourage the creation of new urban spaces that have the variety and richness of linked streets and plazas that had evolved over centuries. After articulating the virtues of spatial definition and perspectival space by citing dozens of urban squares in Italy and Germany, he uses two pragmatic arguments to make his case. The first is grounded in transportation planning principles before automobiles and automated traffic lights. Sitte makes a case that three-way intersections, rather than the four-way intersections created by the conventional gridiron street grids that were being used to expand Europen cities, result in fewer traffic conflicts. The theoretical benefits of T-intersections post-justified Sitte’s preference for complex neighborhood district plans. Likewise, Sitte justifies his preference for idiosyncratic street layouts and parcels by extoling plans that acknowledged pre-existing parcel boundaries and natural features. In addition to the aesthetic benefits of a plan more closely knitted into the contingencies of the existing site, site acquisition and phasing would be simplified.

2015-05-11 Illustrative Plan Context D_Boyton Extended

Boynton Yards Scenario C, Utile, 2015

We have used the same arguments when developing alternative master plans for Boynton Yards in Somerville as part of our work on the Union Square Neighborhood Plan. A combination of remnant industrial uses, small scale urban renewal interventions to improve truck access, and a blurry line between industrial and residential uses has resulted in a crazy-quilt of parcel boundaries that provided a rational basis for creating a richly textured plan.


The Posse

The best team for a specific job at a specific time

The best team for a specific job at a specific time

The term derives from the Latin posse comitatūs, “power of the community,” in English use from the late 16th century, shortened to posse from the mid 17th century. The original meaning refers to a group of citizens assembled by the authorities to deal with an emergency (such as suppressing a riot or pursuing felons).

A posse is an American twist on the uber-example of a management structure in Western culture: Jesus and his disciples, a decidedly top-down organization. Instead of a team that offers support and “bears witness”, a posse is comprised of entrepreneurial specialists who can just barely be coordinated into a cohesive group. In fact, it is precisely this tension between an organizational plan and sometimes-risky individual initiative that makes a posse a popular genre in Westerns and crime dramas.

For a posse to work, the leader who has assembled the group needs to convince the team that the goal is worth achieving, and he understands that a successful plan needs to be worked out collaboratively with equal input from all of the potential participants. Given the provisional nature of the posse, the relative balance of risk and reward needs to be made by each team member before they agree to participate. In most films of this genre, one person decides to drop out just before the action starts as a way to highlight the role of individual choice and initiative. It is precisely the fact that neither a pre-existing nor a future organizational structure exists that guarantees personal motivation and a focus on the task at hand.

For this reason, Utile has chosen to work as an independent architecture and planning practice rather than become part of a large A/E firm. Instead of having all disciplines under one roof, Utile customizes its teams by assembling individuals from other firms based on the necessary skill sets and the personal motivations of potential team members.

The other notable characteristic of a posse is that it is comprised in equal measure of people who have worked together in the past and of newcomers who possess specific skills or motivations. Utile gathers its posses for projects with a similar outlook. Gary Hilderbrand, Eric Kramer, Chris Moyles, and Kristin Frederickson, landscape architects at Reed Hilderbrand; Jason Schrieber, Ralph DeNisco, Lisa Jacobson, Liza Cohen, transportation planners at Nelson Nygaard; Kevin Hively, a job sector-focused economic development consultant; and Jamie Springer, Kate Coburn, Candace Damon, Connie Chung, Kyle Vangel, and Shuprotim Bhaumik, consultants at HR&A, a development strategy firm, are all veterans of Utile’s posse.

At the same time, we’re always on the lookout for new safe-crackers and sharp-shooters. Dan D’Oca, a planner with Interboro; Ona Ferguson, a consensus-building consultant at CBI; and Aya Maruyama, Kenneth Bailey, and Lori Lobenstine of DS4SI are key members of some of our newly formed teams. Given their extraordinary efforts to date, they will be called again when Utile needs to form a future posse.


Questions of Efficiency


President George W. Bush at Fort Bragg, Alabama

Barracks within the structure of the tower: a solution that is efficient in terms of land area – and because of its retroactive inevitability, provokes effective surprise. The unexpected overlap of two uses demands interpretation and generates a third meaning.

Rather than align the word “efficiency” with a style of architecture or a design methodology that favors empiricism over intuition, I would argue that the issue of efficiency is closely aligned with the role of judgment during the design process. Questions of efficiency pervade all scales and kinds of design decisions.  Evoking the relative efficiency of potential solutions is an important part of consensus-building and can drive a design process forward.


Hugo Häring: “Haus E”, 1935

Questions of efficiency also influence finer-grain design decisions. Hugo Häring designed two versions of Haus E to efficiently communicate a polemic. The seemingly-efficient rectilinear version requires compromises of program and functionality that are rectified in the second version. Through-room circulation in the main living space is moved to the side and rooms twist and turn to capture views and sunlight during specific times of the day. Häring’s point is that the ideologically imposed ordering system denies decisions that can improve the efficiency of the plan. We can read the “benefits” of the inflections from rectilinear plan, while at the same time, the original state of the plan is still present in the revised version.


The role of efficiency metrics during the design process, Utile, 2015

But beyond his judgment about what constituted a “better fit,” what metrics informed Häring’s second version? Are the areas of the two plans the same? Could metrics be conjured that would help qualify – and even quantify – the differences that were generated through a series of rational micro-judgments? At what stage in the design process should relative efficiencies be tested (if at all)? If we imagine an iterative design process like Häring’s where scenarios are tested and refined, there are points where efficiency can be measured – as a proof of concept, to help make a case for the design direction, and/or because it’s imposed by clients.


The potential influence of alternative efficiency metrics, Utile, 2015

Today, clients are most interested in cost/value metrics and the net/gross ratio is the most common during the generation of the plan. Net quantifies the potential review, and gross the total capital cost. The higher the ratio, the larger the profit. The percentage of window wall to floor area is the second most common metric. It defines the relative efficiency of plan shapes with the goal that buildings should have the minimum amount of relative expensive exterior cladding. As a result of these metrics, the plan layouts of market-driven building types have been fixed since the 1950s. The perpetuation of these fixed types has been further enabled by the globalization of the real estate market and systems furniture industry.

There are two ways that the metrics of efficiency can be deployed to invent defensible alternatives. The first is by using the metrics themselves to make a case for variations. The second is to use alternative or new metrics that prioritize, for example, passive environmental performance over development financing performance – yet can still lead to cost benefits. New parametric modeling tools can allow for multiple blended and weighted performance criteria, as a launching point for a project or a mid-process proof of concept.


Hugo Häring: House projects, 1941-46

Hugo Häring’s house project from 1941 displays multiple interrelated mico-efficiencies that create the rich domestic rituals of a pre-War villa in a shrink-wrapped package. In addition to the minimum room sizes and the geometric inflections, deployed in this case to accommodate only the necessary clearance around furniture and built-ins, there are efficiencies in the way that one use-area blends into the next. Of course, these are manifestations of efficiency that can only be intuited and not measured, proving that the best designers can weigh possibilities, make reciprocal decisions, and build a complex web of mutually reinforcing – and yes, beautifully efficient – architectural operations.


Tactical Urbanism and Its Discontents

Leave it to Neil Brenner to articulate this millennial planner’s long-time dissatisfaction with the tactical urbanism project. In his review for the current MoMA exhibition “Uneven Growth”, he asks “Is ‘Tactical Urbanism’ an Alternative to Neoliberal Urbanism?”, with the latter’s increasingly clear tendency towards economic polarization, environmental degradation, and the decay of vital public resources. The answer is at best muddled, he argues, without tactical urbanism’s serious reckoning with its relationship to the practice of power. To begin with some of his choice quotes (and please forgive the academ-ese on such an informal platform as this):

“Especially in light of the stridently anti-planning rhetoric that pervades many tactical urban interventions and their tendency to privilege informal, incremental, and ad hoc mobilizations over larger-scale, longer-term, publicly financed reform programs, it seems reasonable to ask in what ways they do, in actuality, engender any serious friction against the neoliberal order, much less subvert it.”

The problem is not only a question of scale, although the “acupunctural” approach favored by tactical urbanists seriously begs the question of how to scale up. Brenner persuasively argues that tactical urbanism can not just subvert the existing growth-first neoliberal order, but also, by internalizing a diminished role for public institutions, ironically reinforce it as well. To parse this with a simplistic example, will a well-designed parklet, trophy child of tactical urbanism, be so cheaply replicable that it can be reproduced on a massive scale? Will it also then draw attention away from public institutions, whose diminished economic and political capital led to a lack of adequate public spaces in the first place?

My personal problem with tactical urbanism (and other popular “urbanisms” to a lesser extent) is its general evasiveness about these questions, its shirking from the issues of “institutional (re)design”, and a consequent lapse into decoratism. Again, Brenner says it better:

“A number of the proposals circumvent questions of implementation entirely… [T]hey put forward relatively decontextualized design “solutions” to the pressing problems of megacity development—for instance, regarding water scarcity, insufficient land for housing, transportation bottlenecks, or issues of energy supply. Indeed, several of the proposals may be more readily classified within the rather familiar genre of dystopian design fantasies and technological prophecies… Because they bracket the formidable constraints associated with implementation under a neoliberalized rule-regime, these design scenarios remain at a purely hypothetical level—visions of an alternative universe that are utopian in the literal sense of that word; they are located nowhere.”

This sounds familiar because we see it over and over again in recent, well-publicized visioning exercises for the future, starting with the artificial sandbars, oysters farms, and pod structures of Rebuild by Design and the more recent Boston Living with Water. To be fair, interrogating the questions of “who pays, who benefits, who loses and who decides” is not part of the competition brief, but such questions are no less urgent and necessary than the fact of rising sea levels. To the credit of my colleagues at Utile, we did wrestle with the calibration between new public infrastructure and private investments on a new above-water ground plane. While we didn’t solve everything, I think we at least deserve being acknowledged for the intellectual seriousness of trying. Meanwhile, the strange absence of a strong socio-economic-political (not to mention legal and technological) premise is pervasive; are we designers working in an ahistorical time, where the future is just like the past, only with higher water levels and more abundant oysters?

Finally on a less angry note, it’s also important to acknowledge that there are urbanists out there whose work meaningfully asks questions about “[the] city of the future—its economy; its property and labor relations; its spaces of circulation, social reproduction, and everyday life; its modes of governance; its articulations to worldwide capital flows; its interfaces with environmental/biophysical processes; and so forth”. There should be more of them.

Hopefully, proponents of the various urbanisms, at least initially within the freedom of competitions and exhibitions, will more fully explore and give formal shape to the terrain of future possibilities, while keeping in mind that this terrain is not just environmental and technological, but fundamentally political too.


Productive Competition

I found this image of Le Corbusier’s proposal for the Palace of the Soviets (1931) when discussing ways that Joe Pucci, a graduate student at Northeastern and a former intern at Utile, might represent his proposal for a mostly-temporary aquatics center for the 2024 Boston Olympics. Le Corbusier, a chroniclor of the evolving technology of airplanes, looks like he is preparing his the model for flight (to Moscow). Note the open window and the way that Corbusier and his assistant are doing a final systems check.

Corbusier was always looking over his shoulder at potential competition, and gossip has it that he saw Ivan Leonidov as a threat to his preeminence as the world’s most important avant garde architect. Corb set out to prove he could do Constructivism as well as the Soviets, but ironically after Stalin had embraced social realism as the officially-sanctioned style. The entry was was mocked by Pravda as a “congress hangar.” Frank Lloyd Wright was driven by the same competitive edge. The Johnson Wax Building, Falling Water, and Talisien West – all designed in the mid-to-late 1930s – sent a strong message that he was “back” and could do streamlining, Dutch de Stijl (that he initially influenced), and an earthwork with complex overlapping geometries better than anyone.

Maybe we should start strategically looking over our shoulders too!



Design Communication and Rhetoric

The modes of communication change dramatically during the course of a design process

The modes of communication change dramatically during the course of a design process

Architects are not builders, but we need to be knowledgeable enough that we can create written and graphic instructions for a building team. While this is an obvious statement, it points in an interesting and mostly unexplored direction. There is a value in thinking about an architecture firm as a communications business in order to clarify the role that different modes of communication play through the course of a project. Importantly, there is a target audience, a specific set of communication tools, and an appropriate rhetoric for each stage of the design process. A communication theory for practice has not been a significant focus of architectural theory since the late 1980s when Robin Evans, Massimo Scolari, and other scholar/practitioners were writing about the relationship between representational strategies and design production. In light of this void in critical thinking, I am going to take an initial stab at the potential issues and opportunities as they pertain to practice and architectural education.

In architecture and many other design fields, there are only five target audiences for what we write, say, and represent visually (draw):

Ourselves (the Designer/Author) – iterative writing, sketching, and drafting we do to work out a design problem

Our Design Collaborators – same as above, but with a rhetorical overlay because we change the mode of representation to persuade others, whether self-consciously or not

The rhetoric of persuasion necessarily changes depending on the stage of the design process.  We might do an evocative perspective sketch to convey an idea early in the process and an authoritative detail sketch during design development. At all stages, we also deploy authoritative analysis and data to justify, back-up, or qualify our design decisions.

Our Clients – same as above, but with a larger emphasis on the role of both persuasive and authoritive modes of communication

Evocative and persuasive depictions of potential solutions need to be combined with authoritative analysis and data to help drive decision-making.

Builders and Fabricators – legally codified instructions in written and graphic form

The authority of legal relationships is reinforced by the written and graphic convention of construction documents and submittals during the construction process

The Public – the most emphasis on persuasive communication strategies – and most akin to advertising

This audience falls outside of the design process but has an influence on decisions made by designers and their clients.

What’s most striking about this list is the range of communication skills that are required, including persuasive, authoritative, and instructional modes of speaking, writing, and visual representation. The relative role of these modes of communication change dramatically and abruptly during the design process, mostly as the result of the evolution of audiences. We start out sketching for ourselves, then communicate with our team, and finally present to our clients during conceptual design. If this work is going to build consensus around a single design direction, it will require a combination of persuasive and authoritative modes of communication. As decisions are made and the project scope is solidified, typically during late Schematic Design and early Design Development, there is a rapid decrease in persuasive modes of communication and a corresponding increase in instructional representations. The graphic above suggests this trajectory.

Given these observations, how can we adjust design practice models to more self-consciously apply their lessons? Certainly, there is an under-emphasis on speaking and writing skills at design schools. In general, a theory of communication, focused both on audiences and rhetorical modes, needs to be taught. Some schools, like the Yale School of Architecture, have devised innovative courses that are co-taught by graphic designers and business school professors. The D-School at Stanford is a program that working at these questions from the other direction, but with an emphasis on collaborative problem-solving and not specifically the modes of communication that engender it. Likewise, in practice, very little thought is given to these issues. I’m hoping to apply some of this thinking at both Northeastern and Utile in the next year. Theory is always  best worked out in practice!


You Need to Become an Expert!

A two-day building envelope educational symposium and design challenge, hosted by Architectural Testing, Inc. (ATI) at its New England Regional Laboratory in Chelmsford, MA, received capacity attendance by 50 area architects, engineers and representatives of product manufacturers specializing in the design and construction of the all-important building envelope air barrier.

A two-day building envelope educational symposium and design challenge, hosted by Architectural Testing, Inc. (ATI) at its New England Regional Laboratory in Chelmsford, MA, received capacity attendance by 50 area architects, engineers and representatives of product manufacturers specializing in the design and construction of the all-important building envelope air barrier.

While there are many aspects of the typical university tenure process that are counter-productive (an issue that has been covered extensively in higher education publications), there are some aspects of the process that could have a positive influence on our firm and the individual career paths of the people who work here. Central to charting a successful path to tenure is the need to identify and foster an expertise that is recognized by others as unique and relevant. In fact, the need to articulate a unique focus-area and research plan (a priest would call it a “vocation”) is typically the first step of a five-year plan.

But how would a tenure-like process translate to Utile? It’s notable that young architects and planners with the first stage of significant experience under their belts are the same age as young academics who get their first tenure-track positions – typically they are in their early/mid-30s. For both cohorts, it makes strategic sense, even outside of the demands of the tenure process, to take stock of one’s career and decide where one’s unique expertise and interests fall after core competences have been mastered. Perhaps more than within a university department, practice is the arena where a more self-conscious career evaluation, incentivized by an institutionalized process, would benefit both the organization and the individual.

It’s important to emphasize that the implementation of a tenure-like process at Utile would benefit the individual first. The goal is to help each person define their area of expertise and research plan. This added-value expertise, beyond the fundamental skills that the disciplines of architecture, planning, and graphic design require, would be highly marketable outside of the Utile bubble. The benefits back to Utile are indirect (but considerable). A team of diverse nationally-recognized experts would increase the number of perspectives brought to each project, open up new territories of practice, and attract other smart and ambitious people to the firm.

So take a few minutes this weekend to self-reflect on what topics interest you and would inspire you to do ground-breaking research. Your newly-gained knowledge will open up creative new avenues on projects and in your career.


Beware a Generic Olympics!

Globe image

Rendering submitted as part of Boston’s Olympic bid

Now that Boston has prevailed as a finalist for the 2024 Olympics, it’s time for the Boston 2024 Organizing Committee to make several important additions to their list of planning priorities. In addition to launching a public outreach campaign to seek public input and garner more support for the Games, the Committee should understand and promote their cultural potential. I hope design innovation is a focus for the next round of planning. One of my platforms when I ran as BSA President was to promote initiatives that would help Boston become a global design city like Copenhagen and Montreal. Planning for the Olympics is the perfect vehicle to help meet this goal.

The proposal to date already includes progressive planning strategies, including a focus on mass transit, building reuse, and walkability. In fact, these attributes were a key factor in the win because they helped make a case for a relatively low overall price tag. But this forward-looking approach needs to migrate into finer-grain decisions, including the architectural characteristics of buildings large and small, the branding of the Games, and the visual quality of the spectacles that are a hallmark of the Olympics. A refined proposal should fully leverage the incredible talent in Boston across disciplines that include architecture, landscape interactive lighting design, industrial design, and graphic design. In addition, the MIT SENSEable City and Media Labs and the professors and research fellows at area design schools should be a resource.

The Olympics provide the perfect opportunity to foster a wider bandwidth of design practices because design thinking will be needed to inform both large-scale planning decisions and to help define the physical character of multiple facilities and events. First and foremost, the new sports venues and the Olympic Village need to pull in and showcase the larger city. The generic rendering of the Boston Games that were published in yesterday’s Globe (see above) looked like they could have been located anywhere and were probably produced by the hand of someone who has never been to Boston. The views of an Olympic Village along the Reserved Channel – produced by Yale students last spring – did a much better job of capturing the potential character of the Boston Games.

Proposal by Nicholas Muraglia and Sarah Smith

Proposal by Nicholas Muraglia and Sarah Smith

Proposed new facilities – like the modular stadium at Widett Circle and aquatics center – should show off Boston in the same dramatic way that Barcelona was displayed to the world in 1992 as the backdrop to the diving competitions.

Diving at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics

Diving at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics

Without a management plan that includes a strategy for effectively and efficiently outlining the design opportunities – and then marshaling the most creative people to help envision potential solutions – the Boston Olympics may turn out to be as generic, from a design perspective, as the 1996 Atlanta Games. Barcelona leveraged the Olympics to become an international center of architecture and design by marshaling that city’s established and emerging design talent. Boston has the same opportunity.


Utile City vs. Turner City

Turner City

2013 Turner City, an annual interactive mash up of Turner’s significant projects

2014-11-20_Utile City-01 (2)

Utile City, updated December 2014

Thanks to a tip from Howard Davis and additional sleuthing by Alex Davis (no relation), I was directed to Turner’s fantastical mash up of their notable projects from across the country. Despite the family resemblance, there are significant differences between Utile City* and Turner City, in addition to the difference in net worth and international reach between the two organizations. The first is that Utile has chosen an axonometric line drawing over Turner’s full color aerial perspective view. In addition, Turner’s version includes ample grassy green spaces and a density that suggests an “Edge City” (like Irvine, CA or Tyson’s Corner, VA) or one of the booming life science campuses that have sprung up near universities and medical centers. Utile City, on the other hand, is a reasonable facsimile of a handful of dense walkable cities, including Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago.

Most of the buildings in Turner City seem to be of the same early-21st Century vintage. Interestingly, all surface parking lots have been eliminated; as a result, we are led to assume that parking is located below the buildings in the scene. Utile City, in contrast, has the earmarks of a city with a messy and unresolved historical past. An elevated highway still makes its way through the urban fabric, parking structures dot the downtown, and early-20th Century residential buildings are cheek-to-jowl with the tough-to-humanize building types that dominated late-20th Century real estate development.

Neither city is perfect, or even a model for an urban future, but they do serve as apt symbols of the preoccupations and priorities of their respective organizations.

* Please note that at least one Turner project – the Boston Harbor Island Pavilion – is depicted in Utile City.


Tehrani on Mies, Saarinen, and Discursive Opportunities

Saarinen_IngallsRink120bn21_s1.640px (2)

Eero Saarinen, David S. Ingalls Rink, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 1953-58

As an extension of our conversation last week, I would add a few thoughts in response to Tim’s blog below – this, as an opportunity to expand on the discussion, and to overcome some of its oppositions, which may lead to reductive readings.

The connection between past and future projects in any office are sometimes inevitable, but rarely are they necessarily interesting in themselves. For this reason, I would make a case for the so-called design agenda not so much as something that underlines ‘personal’ agendas, but rather the discursive opportunities they provide. In other words, the ability to link projects, arguments, and debates across history, culture and circumstances is something that may link a design project to a broader intellectual project. The intellectual project, for me, is not only a personal commitment, but one that advances a disciplinary commitment, and thus puts the personal agenda in a broader political and ethical sphere.

The Mies-Saarinen comparison is a good one, and it helps to advance both ideas: the intellectual project through iteration (Mies), as well as the alternative, the intellectual project through the speculation of varied materials, configurations, and morphologies. Though Tim’s characterization seems to align me with the former, I would actually suggest an alternative model where Mies and Saarinen are braided together to form a commitment that cuts across the binary composition of the argument. What is fascinating about Saarinen’s work, in fact, is the precise way in which he establishes part-to-whole relationships in his projects despite variations of vocabulary. In a similar way, the Mies of the Tugendhat House, Barcelona Pavilion, and IIT show an architect of vastly different linguistic potential, someone who cuts across material and formal languages with equal ease.

As clarification, while Saarinen’s approach did vary vastly from commission to commission, his approach should probably be differentiated  from eclecticism: his individual works were highly studied material, formal and spatial artifacts that brought synthesis to each realm, even when they varied completely from his other works. In this sense, his strategic choice to speak in different languages across commissions should not be confused for lacking a disciplinary commitment, something that is here being cast as a personal agenda. In Saarinen’s work, what is fascinating is the red thread that crosses the boundary of vocabularies, from project to project, despite what may be visible at first glance.

Of course, it would be important to look at Mies and Saarinen in their own historical context to expand on this idea. Invariably the question of authorship looms behind both cases, with Mies’s later work falling into the trap of the very language he develops, while Saarinen is free to evolve from commission to commission. If Tim aligns Saarinen’s strategy with an acute awareness of his corporate clients’ varied identities, I would simply say that his brilliance came not so much in his dutiful acquiescence to those corporations, but rather his translation of their mandates into architectural terms that transcended their very culture, and with great linguistic range.

My challenge to the Utile-OU team was precisely this: how can they extend their own disciplinary research without apology on the one hand and at the same time develop a speculative spirit that takes bigger risks with form, organization, and materiality in response to their client audiences. These two agendas need not be pitted against each other if Architecture’s agency is to be considered as a central part of what we, as designers, bring to the equation. The middle ground to which Tim refers is not irrelevant, but is neither always here nor there. I am asking them for a both-and, and though their proposal is beautifully developed and conceptualized, I wonder if they are willing to take on the risk of failure, if only to advance the discourse of Architecture.

-Nader Tehrani