A classical style of design stupidity

There are many obvious reasons why the Trump administration’s draft executive order that would impose a rigid classical style of architecture on all new federal buildings is a bad idea. 

For starters, this “war on architectural diversity” is a move reminiscent of the authoritarian regimes in North Korea and former Soviet Union. It is also the height of hypocrisy coming from a political party that pathologically rails against “big government”.  Classical architecture has it’s place (and it isn’t Omaha or El Paso), but it shouldn’t be the only criteria by which all federal buildings be judged. Design inspiration and expertise should come from local communities, architects and urban designers, not bureaucrats in Washington. 

But perhaps the most depressing reason for why this proposal is a bad idea is that it will be approved by the one person who arguably has the worst aesthetic sensibilities. Anywhere. Ever. One need only look at Trump’s grotesque properties, gaudy corporate products, and tasteless campaign merchandise to know that he is perhaps the last person on Earth who should be imposing design guidelines. (Calling Trump’s style “dictator chic” is an insult to dictators.)

Architecture and urban design aren’t luxuries. The built environment is a representation of a culture’s values and aspirations. It shapes the human psyche, both as individuals and as a society. As the American author Joseph Campbell said, “If you want to know what a given society believes in, look at what its largest buildings are devoted to.” I would also add “– and how they were designed.” Good design matters. 

Ungreen green buildings

It’s good to see that urban planners in the Emirates and wider Middle East are starting to embrace an approach to urban sustainability that is appropriate to the local context. (“Urban nature doesn’t have to be green, Abu Dhabi summit hears”, The National)

Ecologically-speaking, there’s nothing inherently “bad” about deserts or arid environments. Although they have lower levels of biodiversity compared to a rainforest, they’re still as natural and resilient an ecosystem – and just as worthy of appreciation.

While trees do provide obvious environmental and health benefits, not all cities need to have a lush forest in order to be “green”. There are many other ways of bringing the benefits of natural systems into our buildings and cities, and that includes in arid environments. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to urban sustainability.

You Are Now Disconnected: Smartphones and the City

Smartphones are all-consuming vampires, sucking our mental energy and leaving city dwellers disoriented and alienated. But they’re here to stay — so how can urban designers use their immense power for good?

We are living in a time of unprecedented visual distraction. In the modern urban environment, our attention has to battle with myriad layers of signage and communication — some useful, some not — from billboard advertisements to traffic lights. At the same time, an even more pervasive source of visual pollution can be found in our own hands. The constant drip, drip, drip of digital diversions originating from our smartphones and other devices is reshaping how our minds behave and function, and how we perceive the world around us.

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Engineering Eudaimonia

The first three days of 2018 were unlike any I had ever experienced. I was in Laos visiting the town of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its rich urban character and remarkably well-preserved architectural and cultural heritage. As I wandered the side streets — with its human-scale temples, humble homes, cool cafes, and seamless integration with the local ecosystem — I was struck by just how good this town made me feel. It was a sense of well-being so unique that it was almost palpable, yet difficult to put into words. What I found so striking wasn’t just its visual appearance, but also its acoustic ecology, its friendly residents, and its simple cuisine. As others who have visited Luang Prabang before me have noted, I learned after I returned home, it’s the kind of singular place that can elicit this sort of response for no other reason than just being there.

The experience reminded me of what the acclaimed architect and urban theorist Christopher Alexander described as architecture’s ability to heighten one’s sense of being in the world. Under ideal circumstances, Alexander contends, the built environment could help people “feel their own existence as human beings”; a certain kind of existential experience can arise between building and individual.

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Power to the people: Improving health and wellbeing with post-occupancy evaluations

As human health and wellness has become more mainstream within the real estate industry, tenants, developers, and property managers have grown more sophisticated and comprehensive in their approach for addressing it. Results from the 2018 GRESB Real Estate Assessment demonstrate how participation in the 2018 Health & Well-being module has grown significantly since its initial release in 2016. Over 75% of GRESB participants now have health and well-being policies that address both employee and tenant/customer health.

Like ESG sustainability in real estate, which has evolved and matured to the point where greater importance is now being placed on actual performance rather than just predicted performance, health and wellness outcomes are moving from the merely aspirational to the more tangible. But how best do you evaluate the ongoing health and wellness performance of a building or space?

One option is with environmental sensors that can directly measure quantitative information of relevant indicators, such as air quality, noise, thermal comfort and lighting levels. What this overlooks, however, is how this data translates to human experience: Do people find certain environmental conditions comfortable, healthy and productive? When? And to what extent? To obtain such insight, one could make use of another type of low-tech environmental sensor: people. This is where a “post-occupancy evaluation” (POE) becomes particularly valuable.

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Carbon shift: Why energy is fading as a key performance indicator

One of the benefits of early participation in the GRESB Real Estate Assessment was that it helped real estate portfolios improve their environmental, social and governance (ESG) -related policies and management systems. As ESG policies and management systems have matured, real estate companies and funds that have been early adopters in reporting to GRESB have made continuous performance improvements. But which key performance indicators are most important? Up until now, energy has been the primary indicator for measuring the performance of green buildings and portfolios. More recently, however, another indicator has come to the forefront as the key indicator for measuring real estate sustainability performance: carbon.

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The future is urban

The future is urban

Around the turn of the 20th century, public imagination turned to what life would be like in the year 2000. In newspapers and magazines, writers and artists illustrated visions of a society replete with personal flying machines, pneumatic tubes, moving sidewalks, entire cities enclosed beneath glass domes. From today’s vantage point, these predictions are all too cliché. But take a step back from these specific predictions and you’ll discover a unifying assumption that these futurists got right: the future would be urban.

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