Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities whupped the ass of the architectural and planning establishment, has died. Jacobs wrote until the end of her life, just a week before her 90th birthday, but that first book was the barn-burner. “A city cannot be a work of art.” She said, and italicized it to make sure we got the point. The city is organic, said Jacobs. You can’t plan it.
Jacobs emerged as a community activist who took down (an already wounded) Robert Moses and launched the concept that neighbors had a right to say how their neighborhood looked and what should go in it. A fifty-year history of urban planning as an elite, expert enterprise ended on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village when Jacobs systematically disemboweled the “Radiant Garden City” of Howard, Burnham, LeCorbusier and Moses.
A housewife and mother who pulled apart the metalogic of urban planning. She wasn’t just against urban renewal – she understood it better than its proponents. My favorite part of Death and Life –which I assigned in my seminar this semester – is near the end when she exposes the pseudo-science of urban planning. Twenty years earlier Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture had trumpeted modern architecture and planning as an expression of the new Einsteinian understanding of space and time. Jacobs exposed this as a rank falsehood. Continue Reading
Image: Convent Avenue south of 145th Street, Manhattan, last Saturday. By Felicity Rich.
Sustainability is the hot word in architectural circles, even being added to the architectural curricular guidelines at the behest of the AIA. Is it just six syllables for “green,” or an updating of Vitruvian firmitas? I think it means something about recycling and not polluting, about a building that tries to do more than just suck petroleum and spew carbon dioxide.
Unfortunately, like “green,” sustainability has become a buzzword, which means it has become a fashion, which means it has become a huckster’s tool to sell stuff. You can buy “green” and you can buy “organic” and you can buy “shade grown” and “fair trade”, so why not buy “sustainable?”
Because “sustainable” is about not buying. It is about NOT buying. Continue Reading
Heating bills going up? You need replacement windows – save up to $200 per year with $20,000 in new plastic windows – guaranteed for up to 10 years!
I suppose “Truth in advertising” is as oxymoronic as “sport utility.” Fact is that replacement windows are the most successful home improvement marketing scheme of the 21st century. More buildings have had their windows replaced in the last five years than ever – not because more buildings NEEDED their windows replaced – it is simply super successful marketing, the kind that crawls under your skin and populates your dreams and becomes entirely reflexive.
UIC Professor Robert Bruegmann’s new book: Sprawl: A Compact History (U of C Press) is out, and it is a stunner. Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago alerted me to its imminent appearance, although having worked with Bruegmann as my dissertation advisor over the last few years I knew it was on the way.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has made sprawl a celebrated cause for preservationists for the last decade. Sprawl hurts historic communities and must be stopped. It is something everyone seems to agree on.
Bruegmann’s new book has his typically contrarian take on popular progressive issues: He seems to like sprawl and believes that most people like it in practice, even if they dislike the idea of it.
Heresy! How can I read such filth! Continue Reading
I was at the National Preservation Conference in Portland, Oregon (Motto: It isn’t easy being green) last week and both the city and event impressed, even beyond the obvious Holy Grail of American microbrew. I went on a green preservation tour last Thursday through the Ecotrust building (The Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center), a century-old warehouse that was the first preservation project to gain LEED gold certification. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is very smart among the architectural set of late. Even though the re-use of an existing building would seem to be naturally environmentally efficient, the fact is LEED, like most things, tends to be geared toward new construction, even though the plurality of landfill waste is construction debris. The Ecotrust building managed to re-use 98.6% (!!) of the existing materials by creating a huge boneyard for every removed piece of building and then finding a use for it – doors became walls, beams became chairs, boiler covers became nameplates, etc., etc. The building handles 95% of its stormwater on site through swales and a permeable parking lot, has a green roof (German 2-3 inch design so the old building could handle the loads) and even the requisite seismic reinforcement. Continue Reading
On The Face of It: The Facadism Problem
The struggle for historic preservation is complicated when it comes to facades; what everyone sees; the public face of buildings, where the public interest lies. In historic districts, the goal is to preserve the context of a place, defined by facades. Preservation commissions rarely regulate interior spaces in districts. This leads many to assume that preservation is only about the visual exterior façade of a building, which is wrong.
I first attacked “facadism” almost 20 years ago when developers proposed relocating the façade of the 1872 McCarthy Building on Chicago’s Block 37, since only the façade had been designated a landmark. At the time, several Chicago Landmarks were “façade designations” and this encouraged developers to propose picking them up and moving them about like furniture. It is eaiser to save a thing than a place. But it reached a point of absurdity when the city proposed designating the façade of the Ludington Building, an 1891 work of William LeBaron Jenney. Jenney is famous for pioneering the steel frame skyscraper – shouldn’t the designation include the structure? The façade trend hit its peak with the Chicago Tribune Tower façade designation in 1989, and then came back with a vengeance with the 1996 deal to skin and rebuild the Art Deco McGraw Hill Building on Michigan Avenue, the most outrageous (and scarily successful) example of a period that also saw the demolition of all but 5 feet of the Perkins, Fellows and Hamilton Studio of 1917 for the new Park Hyatt tower. Continue Reading