Friday, October 19

not so superblock

In an interview with the New York Observer several months ago, the Atlantic Yards' landscape architect Laurie Olin dismisses the common stigma against superblocks as clichéd "1960s language." His own arguments for them, however, echo the naïve idealism of planners from that very era. "If I put a street through here," he states, "[then] I have less space for people and I have more cars… When people say 'superblock'— what's wrong with what this is? Because I don't see how adding one car in here is going to make it a better space. I think space on streets is actually useless space."

The current plan for Atlantic Yards involves the demapping of several streets and the creation of a residential superblock. Site Plan via Atlantic Yards Report.

The superblock, put very simply, is a development form larger than a traditional city block. According to civic-minded urban theorists in the mid-20th century, residents of superblocks would be liberated from cars in their everyday life, living freely as denizens of self-sufficient pedestrian communities. The scale of these superblocks, wrote Bauhaus urban planner Ludwig Hilberseimer, would allow them to "preserve an organic community life" in the face of automobile-based cities of the future. (The Nature of Cities, 1955.)

hilberseimersuperblock_a.jpgConcept for Heerstrasse and University of Berlin, 1937. Ludwig Hilberseimer. Scanned from The American City: What Works, What Doesn't by Alexander Garvin. Hilberseimer worked with Mies van der Rohe on the United States' most successful superblock project: Lafayette Park in Detroit.

In practice, completed superblock projects rarely approach Hilberseimer's utopian vision: for the most part, superblock projects are boring and institutional. At worst, the designs encourage crime and neglect.

The NYU Silver Towers project north of Houston between Mercer and LaGuardia demonstrates the detrimental effect that the demapping of streets to create superblocks can have on the public realm. Despite an elegant design by I.M. Pei and a plaza with public art by Picasso, the modest superblock is a dead zone in the Village's otherwise vibrant public realm. Compared to neighboring SoHo – which has streets filled with a jumble of people and uses – the Silver Towers are a public realm failure.

NYU’s Silver Towers, a superblock created by the demapping of Wooster and Greene Streets, lacks the vitality of the smaller blocks that surround it. Photo by Hubert Steed.

With the rise of New Urbanism and the canonization of Jane Jacobs, superblocks became a sort of urban design taboo – the quintessential example of high-minded architectural theory failing in real world application. Thus of the myriad flaws in the plan for Ratner's Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, perhaps the most surprising, from a design perspective, is its return to the superblock form. In the words of the Manhattan Institute's Julia Vitullo-Martin, "Do we not all agree with Jane Jacobs that the urbane mixtures of buildings of varying age, condition—inevitably swept away by the superblock—are a necessary condition of thriving urban life?"

Apparently not.

One dissenter, it seems, is Olin. In the past, Olin has demonstrated an incredible ability to create beautiful public space enclaves in crowded urban environments. At the Getty Center in L.A., he worked with Richard Meier to create a hilltop oasis for art; at Bryant Park, he collaborated with William Whyte to carve a cozy community park from the mind-boggling intensity of Midtown Manhattan.

Bryant Park. Photo from Forgotten NY.

Unfortunately, Olin's talents do not always translate well into projects meant to integrate into the fabric of the city, rather than stand out from it. At Canary Wharf in London – like Atlantic Yards, a mixed-use high-rise development on a post-industrial site – the public spaces planned by Olin are impersonal and lack activity. Despite crowds of people working in the area, the wharf's public spaces are often nearly deserted. (It's said that the Radiohead's Fake Plastic Trees is about Canary Wharf, even though the trees are real. For more criticism, see the Project for Public Space’s Hall of Shame.)

Canary Wharf Tube Station, London, U.K. Image from yuki*.

In the chapter of The Death and Life of Great American Cities entitled "The Need for Small Blocks," Jacobs bemoans the "myth that plentiful streets are 'wasteful.'" She argues that it is, in fact, large blocks that lead to wasted space by constricting "economic use [to] only where [people's] long, separated paths meet and come together in one stream." The consolidation of economic activity to confined geographic areas leads to a "depressing predominance of commercial standardization... [and] the Great Blight of Dullness." Ultimately, it is the presence of streets where things can "start up and grow" that lead to economic vitality and vibrant public space.

needforsmallblocks_2Potential pedestrian paths on large blocks (left) vs. potential pedestrian paths on short blocks (right.) From The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs.

In his defense of the Atlantic Yards superblock, Olin ignores the lessons of Jacobs while also revealing a fundamental misunderstanding of Brooklyn's streets. In vibrant neighborhoods like those surrounding Atlantic Yards, streets are more than a means of reaching a destination: they are the destinations themselves. Besides providing a place for cars to drive, Brooklyn's streets host a diversity of restaurants, stores, and cultural institutions – all of which serve customers arriving via public transportation or on foot. Moreover, the borough often closes its avenues completely to traffic to host festivals and fairs, events that have helped to give Brooklyn the value that Ratner, the Atlantic Yards' developer, is so eager to capitalize on. By asserting that "space on streets is actually useless space," Olin demonstrates a profound ignorance regarding Brooklyn's urban form.

The Atlantic Antic, Brooklyn, NY. (This festival takes place on Atlantic Avenue -- the northern limit of the of the Atlantic Yards development.) Photo from Apollonia666.

Perhaps what is most surprising about the Atlantic Yards' superblock plans isn't the designers' defense of the concept, but the support it has from its developer. Small blocks, Jacobs makes it clear, are better for business. If he knew better, Ratner would be pushing for more streets – not fewer. Indeed, the superblock is neither a pedestrian-friendly design statement nor a wise investment – it's just a mistake.

Monday, October 8

prison payola

The Next American City just released an issue focusing on crime for which I wrote an article on prison privatization. It was a fascinating topic to research, but also incredibly frustrating: there are lots of examples of what doesn't work well and very few of what does.

Photo from NY Times

If you haven't seen The Next American City, check it out -- it's an interesting organization and the magazine has a thoughtful, interdisciplinary approach to urbanism.

If you're interested learning more about prison privatization, there's lots out there. Crime Pays is an award-winning radio documentary about private prisons. The New York Times featured a great article on the topic earlier this year. Finally, for a rigorous analysis of the ethics of private prisons, see State Punishment and Private Prisons, a piece that appeared in the Duke Law Journal in 2005.

Wednesday, August 29


I had been wondering if grad school would leave me enough time to keep writing the Built Environment Blog, and after one day in the studio I have my answer: no.

Also, an earthquake hit yesterday -- my first! It was apparently a 3.0, but I didn't really feel it, I just heard a big rumble.

Even though I won't be writing long posts like fireproof or Grand Army Plaza, Built Environment Blog won't be totally static. The links from and photos from flickr will keep updating, and I'll try to share interesting discoveries about the Bay Area as I make them.

IMG_5129.JPGBerkeley Rose Garden

If you're looking for something interesting to read online, there's still no better place than BldgBlog. Things Magazine is another source for awesome stuff, and Where keeps getting better.

Monday, August 13

cross country

I recently completed a two-month trip across the country. There were two legs of the journey and I took lots of photos on both of them. The first part, from Brooklyn to Chicago by car, took place at the start of the summer. The second part, from Chicago to the Bay Area by plane, took place at the end. Each leg provided a distinct perspective on the American landscape and I had a window seat for both.

IMG_0659aFreight train, Ohio.

From the car, I saw a thin slice of the country, but from quite close. In addition to hearing the horns of freight trains, I could also smell the chicken coops. (It makes you wonder what they do in there...)

From the airplane, I saw a broad swath of the country from a great distance. On the one hand, I could really appreciate the geography of the American West. (I was particularly drawn to its dams and reservoirs.) On the other hand, I didn't get to go to any of the places I saw.

IMG_3925_b_b.jpgFarmland, California.

On both segments of the trip I saw farms. There are, I learned, lots of different kinds of farms.

IMG_0246.JPGFarmland, Pennsylvania.

Some farms are center pivot irrigated -- watered by sprinklers that rotate around a central point. From the ground, these sprinklers look a bit a like a suspension bridge, fork-lift, and garden hose all rolled into one device.

IMG_0683.JPGCenter pivot irrigation sprinkler, Ohio.

The true beauty of center pivot irrigation, however, is only visible from above. By virtue of their radial design, farms using the system have crops arrayed into circles. Sometimes the countryside looks like it's covered in pie-charts.

IMG_3894_b_b.jpgCenter pivot irrigated farms, Southwestern US. (Central pivot irrigation has been used to grow crops in the Sahara!)

Another kind of 'farm' I saw didn't grow anything at all: it produced power.

IMG_0270.JPGWind farm, Pennsylvania.

The first wind farm I saw was in western Pennsylvania. The towering three-bladed turbines were a striking juxtaposition to the traditional dairy farms on the ground. Nonetheless, windmills seemed like a good fit in Amish Country.

On the approach to Oakland Airport, I got another look at a wind farm when my plane flew over Altamont Pass. Constructed in response to the 1970s energy crisis, the Altamont Pass Wind Farm was once the largest in the world. From above, it's almost impossible to see the propeller blades move; instead of looking like power plants, the turbine arrays look like battalions of toy soldiers. (Fighting for the environment, of course.)

IMG_3929_b_b.jpgAltamont Pass Wind Farm, California.

Despite enjoying the journey west -- as well as the two month layover in Chicago -- I'm glad it's over. It's nice to be finally be here in California.

Saturday, July 7

sail to the crib

Last Monday, I decided to have my class sail out to the the Wilson Avenue crib. Sailing to the crib is good practice navigating in large waves -- it also makes the kids more independent and gets them comfortable being further from shore. Getting somewhere on a sailboat is fun, too, instead of just going around buoys.

IMG_2594.JPGA boat practicing trapezing on the way to the crib.

Accompanying my sailors in a safety boat, the trip also afforded me a close look at a work of historic engineering. Built in early 1900s, the Wilson Avenue crib is part of the massive hydrological infrastructure that gives Chicago its drinking water. (The most famous part of the system is the Sanitary and Shipping Canal, which reversed the flow of the Chicago River in 1900.)

Chicago Sanitation DistrictThe Chicago Sanitation District, 1925. (Now known as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.)

When operation began in 1866, the first crib pulled clean water through pipes from two miles offshore to a water tower at the corner of Michigan and Chicago Avenues. Meant to equalize water pressure, the water tower gained great fame as one of the few structures to survive the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

IMG_1961.JPGTo this day, the land between the water tower (above) and the two-mile crib (which no longer exists) is conspicuously unbuilt -- only the Museum of the Contemporary Art has been built above the old pipes' path.

Though the original crib is long gone, others, like the Wilson Avenue crib, remain in operation today. These cribs collect lake water and send it ashore to be purified. One of Chicago's chemical purification plants, the Jardine Water Purification Plant, is the largest in the world.

IMG_2760.JPGThe Wilson Avenue crib, from just beyond the restricted area created after 9/11.

As a place, the crib feels very surreal. In some ways, it's familiar: I see the crib almost every day. At the same time, though, viewing it from the far side -- and from so close -- make being there totally foreign.

Seeing Chicago's skyline from the crib always makes me feel a bit like an astronaut seeing earth from the moon.

Some of my students call the crib "Azkaban," the wizards' prison from Harry Potter. Although the residents weren't prisoners, the cribs were once inhabited by tenders. Today, however, the systems are automated: no one has lived on the structures for decades.

Chicago from the Wilson Avenue crib.

As a waypoint, a historic building, and a place, the crib is fascinating. I always love to sail to the crib.

(Full photoset of the trip here.)

Sunday, June 17

got the t-shirt

Before starting landscape architecture school in the fall, I thought it would be a nice change of pace to coach sailing in Chicago this summer.

IMG_0960.JPGBelmont Harbor.

Even though the whole plan was to avoid design work for a few months, I couldn't help but get excited when my boss offered $100 to the instructor that designed the best sailing school t-shirt.

Living in Chicago for the first time in 7 years, I've found that the Hancock Center has supplanted the Sears Tower as the city's favorite skyscraper. I decided to incorporate the tapered tower into my t-shirt design.

IMG_1288.JPGThe Hancock Tower.

Pondering the iconic building's distinctive cross-bracing, I couldn't help but think of one of my favorite sights in sailing: two boats crossing tacks upwind. After some online searching, I was able to find a great piece of graphic design from the 1987 America's Cup.

Duel, by Keith Reynolds. (From AllPosters)

Initially, I thought that the graphic would be a bit sparse with only one tower, so I decided to incorporate two other iconic Chicago buildings.

The Sears Tower. (From LensImpressions)

The Smurfit-Stone Building. (From ChicagoSage)

When I finished the design, however, I thought it was a bit busy.

cyc shirt_7d.jpg

I took out the Sears Tower and the Smurfit-Stone, but I'm not sure it's better. Which one do you like?

cyc shirt_7c.jpg

We'll see what the other instructors come up with...

Wednesday, June 6

under construction

Last year I moved into a new apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. I loved the place, but there was one problem: a new building was under construction next door. When I complained about the noise, however, my dad made a good point: 'At least you can learn how they build apartment buildings.'

IMG_1926.JPGJune 1, 2006.

When I visited the apartment for the first time, contractors were clearing the remains of old garages that had been demolished on the site.

IMG_2168.JPGAugust 15, 2006.

Within a few weeks, the builders were digging foundations for the new building.

IMG_3690.JPGSeptember 13, 2006.

For about a month, a pumping truck poured concrete into wooden frames to build the foundation.

IMG_4732.JPGOctober 14, 2006.

Once the foundation was finished, prefabricated concrete floor plates were lifted on top. When the floor plates were anchored into place, workers built cinder block walls to support the next level.

IMG_4812.JPGOctober 26, 2006.

As each set of walls were completed, a new set of floor plates were lifted by a crane into place.

IMG_5549.JPGNovember 18, 2006.

And then another level of cinder block walls was added...

IMG_5851.JPGDecember 6, 2006.

The large crane that lifted the floor plates into place is visible in this photo. On days like this when the floors were being installed, the street was filled with 18-wheelers carrying prefabricated concrete plates.

IMG_6612February 10, 2007.

During a powerful windstorm in February, several strips of plastic blew off the roof and over the side of the building. They made a loud whipping sound that kept me up at night -- it was quite annoying. It was the only time that it seemed like anything went awry in the process, though. Overall, I was very impressed with the efficiency of the construction.

IMG_6810.JPGFebruary 26, 2007.

By the time winter started flexing its muscle, most of the structural elements were finished. As snow fell on the site, the construction workers were installing elements of the building's interior.

IMG_6868.JPGMarch 3, 2007.

On the night of March 3rd, the construction site was lit by a partial lunar eclipse. It was a surreal sight.

IMG_7721.JPGApril 10, 2007.

IMG_8051.JPGApril 19, 2007.

By mid-April, work had begun on the cosmetic elements of the building's exterior. Exposed cinder block walls were covered in brick and the window panes were put in place.

IMG_0437.JPGMay 21, 2007.

IMG_0164.JPGMay 31, 2007.

365 days after I first photographed the construction site, the lease on my apartment expired. After I finished moving out, I made sure to return one last time to take a final picture. Soon the building will be finished, but I won't get to see it. Nonetheless, my dad was right: now I know how they build apartment buildings.

Full construction photoset here.

Friday, May 25

ride to the sea

This week I fulfilled a long-time wish and rode my bike down Ocean Parkway to Coney Island.

IMG_0302aThis tree-lined path starts just south of Prospect Park and continues about 5 miles until reaching the Atlantic Ocean. It's a lovely ride, if a bit bumpy.

Culturally, the route was dominated by orthodox Jewish communities: it seemed that there was a Hebrew school or Synagogue on every block. The most unique of these buildings, from an architectural perspective, was the Mirrer Yeshiva, which seemed to have been redesigned mid-construction. At first glance, I thought that the school was adding a rooftop addition to take advantage of unused FAR, but closer examination revealed that the steel had been exposed for some time. I've never seen a building quite like it.

IMG_0429.JPGThere are basketball courts on the roof of the brick structure below the two steel floors. Oy, what a design!

Ocean Parkway also passes several unique features of Brooklyn's built environment. In between Avenue H and Avenue I, for instance, the boulevard passes over the Bay Ridge Line, an underutilized freight line that once linked the piers of Sunset Park to a rail hub in western Brooklyn at Broadway Junction.

IMG_0430.JPGThe Bay Ridge Freight Line.

Several years ago at an old job, I examined the feasibility of re-using the Bay Ridge Line as a cross-Brooklyn light rail route. Adapting the right-of-way for light rail would be a relatively inexpensive way to link areas without transit service to existing subways.

Combined with other efforts, such transit improvements could spur substantial economic development in the area. Ultimately, however, the proposal was dropped from the final report I was working on. I still think it's a great idea.

bayridgeline_aBrooklyn Google map with subways, via OnNYTurf. The Bay Ridge Line is the hatched double black line curving from east to west. The route of my ride, Ocean Parkway, is between the orange and yellow/orange lines in the center of the map.

But back to the ride...

At Avenue U, in a landscape of single-family homes that bore little resemblance to the Brownstone Brooklyn I left at the start of my ride, I passed a mysterious cast-iron tower unlike any I'd ever seen in the city before. I wondered if it was perhaps a remnant of Brooklyn's once comprehensive trolley system, but found no evidence that Ocean Parkway ever had streetcars. As it turned out, the tower had a far less romantic origin.

IMG_0308.JPGObsolete sewer ventilation tower. Many thanks to Forgotten-NY's Kevin Walsh for the explanation.

Finally, I reached Coney Island. The ocean was beautiful.

IMG_0314.JPGConey Island Boardwalk.

On a whim, I departed from my plans and headed east, away from Coney Island. Before long I reached Brighton Beach, one of New York's classic Russian neighborhoods. The boardwalk wasn't crowded, and the few people I saw certainly weren't speaking English.

IMG_0338.JPGAt least I could understand the URL at the bottom of the sign.

Eventually I made it to Kingsborough Community College, which has a beautiful campus at the entrance to Jamaica Bay. Across the water I saw Breezy Point, where I helped plan a marina that would have hosted sailing if New York had won its NYC2012 Olympic bid. I eyed the shore sadly, thinking about what an amazing venue it would have been.

Rounding the tip of the peninsula, I reached Sheepshead Bay, one of my favorite parts of the city. Besides City Island in the Bronx, Sheepshead Bay is the most 'New Englandy' part of New York City with active fishermen and a harbor filled with bobbing sailboats. (Check out the blog Sail Brooklyn for more about Sheepshead Bay.)

IMG_0386.JPGYou can just see the top of the Verrazano Bridge in the distance.

Riding slow to soak in the scenery, I was nonetheless going fast enough that an unseen speed bump flipped me neatly over my handlebars, almost ending my ride. Refusing medical attention from a startled security guard, a quick survey found my bike and body functional enough to continue -- my helmet had spared me a trip to the hospital. Bloodied but not beaten, I headed back to the beach.

IMG_0398.JPGThe New York Aquarium. Stupid place for a wall.

Back on the Coney Island boardwalk, I noticed the sorry state of the New York Aquarium, which was once located at Castle Clinton in Manhattan's Battery Park. Fortunately, the Aquarium is about to be rebuilt with a design by Enrique Ruiz-Geli, my favorite of a new crop of Catalonian architects transforming Spanish design.

Ruiz-Geli's design for the New York Aquarium. (Via Gowanus Lounge)

The new plan, which I love, interacts with the boardwalk much more than the existing building and has the potential to create a powerful waterfront-based aesthetic experience like that of the Milwaukee Art Museum, which was designed by Ruiz-Geli's Spanish compatriot Santiago Calatrava.

Further down the boardwalk, I felt conflicting emotions as I checked out Astroland in its final year of operation. On the one hand, I fear that new developments might destroy the kitschy charm that has given Coney Island its unique character for so long. On the other hand, I felt that some aspects of the boardwalk are ready to be retired. 'Shoot the Freak', for instance, which encourages children to fire paintballs at a 'live human target', is best left in the past.

IMG_0405.JPGAstroland Park may be closing, but the world-famous Cyclone roller coaster will survive, thankfully.

Heading back to Ocean Parkway and concluding my adventure for the day, I reflected that there was nowhere in the world quite like Brooklyn. I had seen but a thin slice of the borough on my bike ride, but witnessed a rich diversity of landmarks created by the people of the city. From temples and trains to roadways and restaurants, the environment of Brooklyn was one truly reflective of the broad range of people that live there.

IMG_0418.JPGThe Coney Island Parachute Jump.

Sadly, I'm leaving Brooklyn soon to move west. It's tough to leave, but this unique city will always have a place in my heart. Will I miss Brooklyn? Yes. Will I remember it forever? Fugghedaboutit.