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.

The ‘Unhappy Truth’ About Montreal Bagels

Re “Canadian Bagel Rivals Unite Against Environmentalists” (Montreal Dispatch, Nov. 27):

The story of two rival bagel makers in Montreal who have joined forces to oppose the demands of “anti-bagel radicals” — those local residents and policymakers who want to ban their wood-burning ovens because of the environmental risks they pose — sounds like something straight out of an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “Seinfeld.” But it’s no laughing matter.

While wood-burning ovens help make Montreal bagels the best in the world (sorry, New York), the scientific consensus is demonstrably clear: Wood smoke, whether from an industrial oven or a home fireplace, is a major health hazard and contributor to urban air pollution.

Because of this unhappy truth, I now know what it must feel like for religious people to be told that their cherished beliefs collide with reality. The alternative — in this case, making Montreal bagels in non-wood-burning ovens — is sacrilege.

_______
Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

Photo by Chris Wattie for The New York Times

The Map is Not the Territory

“I have rivers but no water; forests but no trees; cities but no buildings. What am I?”

It took a few seconds to realize that the question being asked of me was actually a riddle.

I was in Hong Kong, dining at a cha chaan teng. Literally translated as “tea restaurant,” these humble, retro diners have been serving no-nonsense comfort food since the 1950s. To the uninitiated or unprepared, eating at a cha chaan teng can be a jarring experience. You are made to share an impossibly small table with complete strangers. Servers can be a bit too brisk, too impersonal. Upon entering, one immediately feels the pressure to quickly sit, order, eat, pay and leave. Servers have no time to engage customers in idle chit-chat, let alone issue existential challenges. The fact that this server was bending these unwritten rules to ask me a riddle — so calmly and so nicely — was a surprise.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Slow Data in the Age of the Smart City

Cities stand to benefit from ever-increasing technological advances. Digital information is helping solve our most pressing urban challenges. Yet the rising level of data we are now capable of generating can obscure the original intention and purpose of this work if we don’t stay mindful of the social dynamics at play by engaging with the people that are meant to benefit from it.

Smart and connected technologies embedded across city infrastructures can help monitor, anticipate and manage urban issues in new and effective ways. From spotting economic trends and improving health to combating crime and optimizing traffic flows, intelligent infrastructure has the potential to help us make more informed decisions for solving some of the greatest issues that cities face.

Much of the optimism surrounding intelligent infrastructure, however, relies on concepts that can be easily misunderstood or overhyped, particularly those related to smart buildings and smart cities such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and Big Data. “Smart” should be understood not as something that you simply install as an add-on; rather, it is an enabler of larger outcomes, something that requires human intervention and implementation. To really get the most out of these technologies, in other words, we first need to take a step back — and maybe even slow down.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading