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Klaus Philipsen, FAIA is an architect, urban designer and architectural writer specializing in urban architecture, adaptive reuse, preservation and transportation work. He is President ArchPlan Inc. past chairman of the Baltimore Design Center, member of the AIA National Regional and Urban Design Committee and president of NeighborSpace Baltimore County. He is a co-founder of the 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide smart growth group. Klaus has been a presenter, speaker or moderator at international, national and regional conventions and events about cities, design, smart growth, economic development, livability, sustainability and transportation. He writes an architectural column in a local paper and is a urban design contributor on a statewide radio talk show. For inquiries about presentations, participation in discussion panels or articles write to info@archplan.com

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Transit: Losing by Not Investing

One of the standard figures of speech that politicians like to use is "kicking the can down the road." In a time when it counts as long-term thinking to set the alarm for the next morning, this is exactly what happens time and again. 

Even though infrastructure is needed for an economy to run it is initiated by "the government" which makes it an easy target for political play.  Infrastructure is an investment without a direct or short-term return, and so is often the first victim when politicians run on austerity and fiscal prudence but really cater to immediate gratification and private consumption at the expense of long term thinking and communal benefits.   
Rail Transit. Who pays is main question at this time

And so it is that the good people of Maryland elected a new governor who ran on the promise of lower taxes and smaller government, and who disparaged two long-term public infrastructure transit projects during the campaign.  These projects represent $5.3 billion dollars of transit investment, $450 million that have already been sunk into planning and design.  They have been in development for over 12 years, and both are recommended projects in the transportation apportionment approved in the federal budget adopted by House and Senate in the final hours before the holidays.

It wouldn't be without precedent that a Governor would scrap an advanced or even fully-funded transportation project. The Governors in three states rejected federal High Speed rail (HSR) money that had been set aside for their states. Governor Christie not only rejected a rail tunnel under the Hudson River that is desperately needed, but even repaid the feds some money.
ICC: More money for roads and bridges? The current MD
Governor took the ICC over from a republican and completed it.

The narrative of these actions is always the same: We can't afford the big expenses of these long-term infrastructure projects, they are government “boondoggles,” they bust the budgets and so on. Those who spin this story are the same ones who promote and benefit from the policies that promote short-term consumption, namely tax cuts. These are the arguments in spite of a GOP commitment to infrastructure in the party platform.
Infrastructure: Building the Future  (From the GOP Platform)
America’s infrastructure networks are critical for economic growth, international competitiveness, and national security. Infrastructure programs have traditionally been non-partisan; everyone recognized that we all need clean water and safe roads, rail, bridges, ports, and airports. 
This would have been the thinking when L'Enfant laid out the plans for the District of Columbia, when America built its railroads, when Baltimore, Philadelphia and scores of other cities built their sewer and water systems early in the last century (systems that lasted to this day and are now finally giving out with no replacement dollars in sight). Imagine this would have been the argument when Dwight Eisenhower envisioned the Interstates or Lyndon B. Johnson laid the ground for the Great Society Metro in DC, the Dulles Airport, the BART subway in San Francisco. There is nobody in his right mind today, who would want to miss any of these projects because generations later the general public is still enjoying the enormous benefits. But make no mistake, all these projects required sacrifices, they cost lots of money and they had their enemies at the time.

So what to do about the Baltimore Red Line and the Washington-area Purple Line? Is the new Governor right, that it is irresponsible to spend such large percentages of the discretionary transportation fund on transit when only a small percentage of Marylanders ever use transit?  After all, he represents the rural areas, the small towns and villages that in many cases hardly have any transit at all. Even if large investment in transit infrastructure is appropriate, are the Red Line and the Purple Line good projects, or are there more efficient and better options that could achieve the same outcomes instead?  Do the years of planning and progress matter, or should a new Governor get some time to look it all over before proceeding, and at least have the opportunity to delay, if not halt these projects completely?
Purple Line Maryland

These questions are being asked by many, and certainly proffered by those who have been skeptical about large transit investments all along.  With a Republican Governor in the offing who has questioned transit and stated that foremost the State needs to fix what it already has, especially roads and bridges, an assortment of unlikely partners has formed that, for a variety of reasons would like nothing more than to see these two large New Starts project die.

Let’s look at the above questions in order to try for some answers:

"Most Marylanders never use transit":
Yes, true, even in Baltimore the mode split is only 16%.  But if we want this to improve, the transit system must be expanded.  How true that is demonstrated by DC where just under 40% use public transit.  Current transit ridership is not a good, let alone the only, available metric to determine the proper proportion of transit investment compared to roads.  For example, one must consider where the vast majority of Maryland's gross economic product comes from, i.e. the metro areas around DC and Baltimore. Neither of these areas can thrive without good mobility. Transit is an increasingly highly ranked mobility choice. Lack of transit holds the economy back. The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore finds that businesses report lack of good transit as the # gripe of area employers. The leading business organizations, the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) and the Washington Board of Trade fully support the Red Line and the Purple lines. Aside from that, the transportation investments projected for the coming years include significant amounts of investments in "roads and bridges".

MDOT Capital Program Summary shows that Red and Purple Line are not sucking up all money
"Are the Red and Purple Lines good projects, or are there more efficient options that could achieve the same outcome?" 
The Red Line and Purple lines have been investigated and studied for over twelve years now, four of which were under a previous Republican state administration.  Each project has used up millions of dollars in planning money and thousands of community hours in participation. Surface rail, underground rail, rapid bus and various route alternatives were studied, compared and evaluated. Full environmental Impact Statements (EIS) were prepared, reviewed and approved. A locally preferred alternative (LPA) was selected on merit in terms of the best cost benefit ratio as calculated by strict FTA standards originally conceived by George W. Bush when he as President initiated the comprehensive transportation bill which was called ISTEA. Under that recently modified formula benefits were expressed in cold numbers such as ridership forecast, and based on rigorously tested and calibrated metropolitan models that include demographic projections, time savings for riders, and environmental benefits.  The high tunnel costs of the LPA are offset by travel speed increases and higher ridership due to routing the line through areas with the highest densities of transit riders (compared to where it is the easiest and cheapest to do). Alternatives to the LPA that were studied never gained real traction because they were found either to not provide the hoped for cost savings, were simply not technically feasible, or did not have the same benefits.  The few alternatives still proposed by project opponents are all reformulations of these old plans.  They all fare just as badly or worse, and for the same reasons. Furthermore, anybody who thinks that design modifications can still be made at the time when the projects are ready to be bid completely misjudges the time it takes to get altered design documents bid ready.  In the case of the Purple Line, the request for P3 proposals is long out and responses were due in January with the deadline now extended by 2 months to give the incoming administration some time to settle. Each submitter of a valid proposal receives a stipend for the substantial effort it takes to submit under design-build rules, making this bids useless alone would cost $8 million.  In the case of the Red Line 50% of the work is also P3 with proposals to be requested concurrent with standard bids for the other 50% in 2015. 
A Red Line downtown station will look much like a subway

Should a new Governor delay these projects?
Any delay would most likely be tantamount to death for the projects through loss of the $1.8 billion of federal funding that would most certainly come with delay. New Starts projects are incredibly competitive. Dozens of cities compete with projects over the about $14 billion that the FTA has set aside for transit funding annually.  Maryland's two New Starts projects both received a letter of recommendation and are funded in FY 15 with $100 million each.  It is more than likely that any delay would not only increase the cost of construction but move the two projects back to the back of the queue. The Governor, who was already part of the previous Republican administration eight years back when the Red Line was already in planning should recall that extensive attempts of pushing the project in the direction of BRT were already undertaken back then and included in the analysis of alternatives. Bus tunnels proved to be more expensive than LRT tunnels and surface BRT proved to either be too slow to really bring benefits over the existing bus service or the required dedicated lanes were too intrusive to the flow of downtown traffic.  

Can we afford them when the budget appears to have significant shortfalls as it is?
Any time a new administration takes office, there is much moaning and groaning about how terribly the previous administration managed the budget.  In fact, every year when a new budget has to be proposed by Maryland's Governor, projections downsize the expected revenue and increase expected expenditures. This is a well-worn ritual and Maryland is no worse off in this than most states, and in fact is actually better than most. In addition, the current Governor has proposed and the General Assembly has approved significant revenue increases for the Transportation Trust Fund from higher gasoline taxes, coupling the tax to inflation and making several other small tweaks. The resulting $400-600 million annual additional revenues (depending which year since the increases are gradually introduced between 2014 and 2016) pay for more than what the two New Starts transit lines draw annually from the trust fund. That was exactly the idea, to make the fund flush enough to afford investments. And to create some balance, the budget for 2015 includes significant amounts going to roads and bridges. In 2014 the legislature approved a "lock box" provision that makes it much harder to divert transportation revenues to balance the general budget.

Is the Baltimore Red Line too expensive? 
With a price tag of nearly 3 billion dollars, nobody can contest that the Red Line is a very expensive project. How did it get that way, when initial estimates were so much lower? The main reason has to do with the decision to tunnel the project through all of downtown and through the entire historic Fells Point area as well as for a short segment on the west side of town near the county line. Even with trains that are shorter than subway, underground segments of LRT approach the cost of metro subway systems because the construction method of bored tunnels and cut and cover stations are identical and many of the station accessories, escalators, elevators, smoke evacuation systems etc. are also the same. Underground sections also require a much more detailed investigation of existing conditions than surface rail because many surprises could lurk down below. It were the tunnels, then, which drove the Red Line cost up. The per mile cost is at nearly $203 million still significantly below that of a full fledged metro system which requires full track separation on bridges or tunnels throughout.

When dealing with long-term infrastructure projects, like Baltimore's water system, which was constructed in the 1920s, the question has never been, “Can it be done cheaper?” Rather, the question has been, and should be, “What is excellence, what is state of the art, and what will serve future generations optimally?” The Baltimore Red Line and the DC area Purple Line should be approached with that same troika of questions. 
The current Administration has [replaced] civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit. (From the GOP Platform)
Those who peddle "alternatives" should admit that they are not really transit advocates, have no real alternative project, and are working to undermine the largest transit investment this state has ever made. Only the two FTA recommended New Starts projects in their current configuration have an approved EIS, are engineered, priced and ready to go. Everything else is a pipe-dream and conjecture.  Pursuing anything else would set either metro region back at least 5-7 years.  For Baltimore, it means no significant transit investment. The city hasn't seen a new rail line in twenty years, and it is simply not responsible to work against the Red Line, especially not after over $230 million have already been spent on the project for planning, design and testing.  Neither businesses nor citizens benefit from cancelling a $2.9 billion transit infrastructure investment that has attracted $900 million in federal funds, and will utilize private sector money. Denying this investment to a region which is already reeling from drastically cut back federal activities and expenditures is the opposite of job creation and economic development. It pulls the rug out from a number of investors and developers who have projected or already realized projects in the corridors which were slated for light rail.  It doesn't consider the future of a metro area that is increasingly attracting millennials and young creatives that clamor for better transit. It doesn't consider the needs of those who need better access to jobs on the periphery nor those who are too old, too young, too poor or to infirm to drive and it doesn't care that any dollar spent on on the Red Line could come back through economic development and community transformation that have shown to be possible with light rail transit if done right as in Denver and many other cities.

A governor whose agenda is a better business climate and job creation must recognize these facts, even if he is from the suburbs and represents the more rural areas and fiscal prudence is his goal. It is fiscally prudent to invest in the future. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff

External Links:

Krugman: Cannibalize the Future
Top 10 American Infrastructure Projects of the 20th Century
American Transportation History Videos (History Channel)
Metropolitan Transportation Infrastructure Survey (Mayors Conference)
Rail Transit Cost Comparisons
Cato paper comparing cost and benfit of Metro and Light Rail
Purple Line website
Red Line website
CNN: Americans fall in love with transit

Friday, December 12, 2014

21 Measures for Pedestrian Safety (in Baltimore or Anywhere)

There is hardly a city left in America that doesn't have a Complete Streets policy, and Baltimore is no exception. Unfortunately, while talk is universal, action is much harder to find.
Stop for pedestrians: Baltimore traffic guard

While many cities have been relatively quick to paint a number of bike-lanes on their streets, a comprehensive shift from car-centric planning to planning that puts the pedestrian, bicycle, and transit first is barely detectable in most of these cities, save for a few. Interestingly, those cities that set the shining examples have planners and DOT leaders who are women. Rina Cutler, deputy mayor for transportation in Philadelphia, Janet Attarian, who is in charge of Complete Streets in Chicago and most famously, former transportation commissioner Janette Sadik Khan of New York.  Baltimore, too, has a female transportation planner, Valorie LaCour, as Division Chief of the Department of Transportation, and there has been much hope for a trajectory that follows the big city examples to the north. In spite of good intentions, though, Baltimore's efforts to start a new page in transportation planning are mired in compromises, budget cut-backs, personnel changes and bureaucracy. 
Jannette Sadik Khan, former NYC Transportation Commissioner
Bike issues are not included in this article although they
are in many ways the same as pedestrian issues.

Sadik Khan especially has propagated the idea that we don't have to wait years before important changes can be made, before the Titanic turns and results are visible. Instead, Khan took a page from "tactical urbanism" and moved very quickly to make temporary fixes to the streets. The approach of using paint, barrels, and timber ties to try out new traffic arrangements fits very well with Jane Jacob's idea of observing people to see what works, a really obvious approach that has also made Jan Gehl of Copenhagen world famous. He, too, propagates tactical urbanism, quick and simple solutions that act as experiments and can gradually be improved towards a final installation.

After seven years of Complete Streets policy, there is still more talk about the budget process, about how expensive it is to make changes, and generally, how complicated the transportation department is, than about actual change. 

I sat down and made a list of items that should be done in a city that is truly pedestrian friendly. Many of these items could be implemented, well, like tomorrow or the day after, because they are neither expensive, nor rocket science.
1.   No right on red anywhere in the central city or where pedestrian traffic is heavy (Easy to implement, practically no cost, maybe some marketing expense to send the message that there is a paradigm shift)
No turn on Red signs like this are spotty and need to be
installed on all urban intersections with pedestrian traffic
2.   No rush hour lanes directly abutting a sidewalk (Easy to implement, minimal cost for removal of signs. Curb extensions could be done temporarily at intersections with wood ties for an observation period)
3.  Well-marked and well-lit crosswalks everywhere, especially mid-block (All it takes is paint and some additional signs. Spot lighting may be a bit more involved and could come as a Phase II improvement. A cheap alternative would be solar activated flashers for when a pedestrian is present).
Whimsical pedestrian markings in Baltimore's
Westside arts district
4.    No pedestrian signals requiring push-button activation anywhere downtown (Cheap and quick, remove push buttons and adjust signal computer to provide pedestrian crossing phases automatically)
Pedestrian activated walk signals are a nuisance
and should only occur where pedestrians are rare
And they should indicated that the signal is, indeed,
5.    Full enforcement of the pedestrian right-of-way laws at crosswalks (Simply a matter of assigning enforcement personnel and properly instructing traffic wardens)
6.   Longer crossing signal times, especially on wide streets (Easy adjustment of the signal timing on central computer)
7.   No signals without pedestrian heads (There are still plenty old signals out there, the cost of adding signal heads can be substantial with vehicle heads strung on wires and no electric feeds existing underground)
8.   All pedestrian signals should provide the “go” signal two seconds before vehicles get green light (Easy to do adjustment of the signal timing on central computer)
9.   No pedestrian phase should be so short that it takes two phases to cross a street (Easy to do adjustment of the signal timing on central computer)
10. No inner city bus stop should be without extra space, shelter, and amenities (This is a responsibility that is shared between city and transit provider and cost can be deferred through commercial advertising agreements)
11. Fewer parking garages in downtown areas of desirability (Baltimore has overbuilt downtown with parking garages, so this may be a tough one for a while but additional development should first use the extra capacity and some garages may actually be converted into other uses)
12. Fewer curb cuts across sidewalks with high pedestrian volume (This is a matter of gradual change but pedestrian safety and convenience should trump short convenient access for cars)
13. No construction sites that simply close the sidewalk, saying "Pedestrians use other side" (this costs the public nothing, it requires simply that no sidewalk closure permits are given unless a safe pedestrian route on the same side of the street has been established)
A practice that should be forbidden, i.e. a pedestrian
path should be marked along the construction fence
14. No sidewalks with less than 5' of actually usable space, free of obstructions (This is a difficult and costly requirement that would begin with taking signal boxes and obstacles out of the pathway of sidewalks until a 5' clear width is universally achieved. Wider sidewalks are, of course, desirable in many places.)
15. General maximum speed limit of 30mph within city limits, except designated expressways, and 20mph in residential streets and near schools (This would greatly simplify the current hodge-podge of speed limits that are rarely understood or adhered to. NYC just started such a program.)
20 mph is a good speed for residential areas
16. No crosswalk without curb ramps, per ADA (Cities are generally on this already, and given the thousands of intersections, this is a long-term endeavor).
17. Reinstate the red light and speed camera system (Baltimore had the largest such system in the country with over 80 cameras, and got into much trouble with poor management, erroneous tickets, and a "bounty system" encouraging fraud. 
18. No large parking lot or garage without marked pedestrian routes and refuges. (Every driver becomes a pedestrian once the car is parked but most garages and lots provide poor guidance for pedestrians and rarely a safe passage). 
19. Each downtown block must have some visual interest point for pedestrians (Many form-based codes now require "pedestrian interest" design, but it remains startling how many dreary city blocks remain where pedestrian have to rush along blank walls without any green space, variation, or views into adjacent structures. A creative program could create an inventory and competition based intervention program.)
Pedestrian Count down signal
20. Install Pedestrian rest areas and trailblazing throughout the city. (Like the previous point, areas of widened space, benches, and information can provide relief for pedestrians and make walking more pleasant, especially for the elderly that need to sit from time to time.) 
21. Reduce number of one-way streets. (While two-way streets are certainly no panacea for pedestrian safety and actually increase conflicts at intersections, two way street patterns "tame" traffic and especially in narrower streets slow traffic and make it behave like local traffic.)

In case the main point got lost:  Most of these items require simple measures, don't take long and cost little. This means they are also easily reversible should observation show problems here and there. 

All they take is courage, the courage that Janette Sadik Khan showed in New York, and which turned the Big Apple in a few months from a car-oriented and pedestrian and bike hostile environment, into a place that became a model for the whole country in terms of pedestrian and bike safety. Of course, it helped that NYC always had tons of people walking in the street because it never gave up on urban living and on retail lining its street.

Many residents in cities like Baltimore need to learn how to walk again, and with it the whole culture of street vendors and urban retail has to be rediscovered.  That is what smart growth, healthy cities and sustainability is about. And who doesn't believe in any of that. It will also bring down the stubbornly and appallingly high pedestrian fatality rate. Let's do it!

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff

Related articles on this blog:

Why US Pedestrian safety Remains Elusive
Are two-way streets always better?
Street Design the Secret to Great Cities
Complete Streets, the DNA of a new Urban Mobility Culture
Urban Street Design Guidelines (NACTO)

External Links

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Architect in an Age without "Isms"

After asking in last week's blog, "What is Urban Design," a question that kicked off a lively debate, this week the question is, “Why does the work of architects seem so elusive to non-architects?”

An employee in my firm used to tell me how his mother asked him: "now that you are an arch-e-tett (first syllable pronounced with a soft “ch” and last without the "c"), tell me again what exactly do they do?". The mother isn't alone, many people seem to be befuddled about what architects do.

Even architects themselves are sometimes uncertain about their profession or occasionally befallen by the "impostor syndrome," well known to many artists.  Part of me suspects that I’m a loser, and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty.” John Lennon supposedly said.
Corbusier: Ronchamp, France
The artist's impostor syndrome may be explained with the fact that the arts entail things that reside in the zone between reality and imagination, a zone for which there are no clear metrics indicating what is good and what bad, what passes or what fails. Aesthetics are not easy to measure even if one doesn't follow the relativist's assertion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A mason or a farmer would probably be less likely to feel like a fraud since the work product is real, measurable, tangible and easy to assess, not that much is left to question.
The architect falls somewhere in between artist and craftsman. The architect may use art to project objects of his/her imagination, images of what is not yet tangible and not yet in this world. But realization is a very tangible act. Mies van der Rohe famously said "Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins." In spite of this pretty straight forward definition many architects consider themselves as some brand of artist (what’s with the black outfits?) but the architect's product is much more measurable, tangible and direct than books, music, acting or paintings.  This uncertainty about what an architect does is reflected in the varying approaches taken to train architects: arts colleges, engineering schools, or departments that include architecture, urban design, planning and landscape design, for example.  The oscillating public perceptions about what it is that architects do, or of what ilk they are, has not helped their standing in society.
Philip Johnson: From modernism to post modernism

"Architects [had] a fall in status but an increase in celebrity," is how Dutch architectural celebrity Rem Koolhaas diagnosed the condition of the profession a while ago in one of his lectures.  Peter Eisenmann speaking about architecture blamed the architects themselves: "There has been a loss of integrity about how architecture portrays itself."

Should design of buildings, places and cities be a creative act or should it be seen much more prosaically as optimization of programs, sites, and efficiencies? Isn't master planning or concept design rather like farming, i.e. like putting seeds in the ground where conditions are suitable, weeding and fertilizing, but otherwise see what happens?  Stray too far from the fundamental formula or add too much artistry and the yields are bound to suffer. 

Architecture is ordering social processes, writes Patrik Schumacher in his "Parametric Phenomenology", a "unified theory of design."

Corbusier: Chandigarh tapestry design
The public likes to place art and function on opposite ends of the spectrum. The most artistic buildings are seen as dysfunctional, such as Libeskind's art museum in Denver or Sarah Hadid's firehouse for Vitra. The latter never saw a fire truck but instead set off a collection of hyper-designed structures on the company campus, each built more as an art object than as a useful shell.   Maybe it is exactly that uncertainty about how to judge buildings, function and design and the pesky question of whether one should see design and function as indivisible or as opposite poles that makes people so unsure about what to make of architecture and the makers of it. The architect encounters this uncertainty often. "Do you do buildings?" people carefully ask.  "Houses or commercial ones? New or rehabilitation?  Do you do master plans?”  It is like in the game of "20 Questions," a process of elimination, but without an idea of what will remain. 

Architecture combines the mind, the eye, and the body like no other discipline. Peter Eisenmann

More assertive and opinionated types ask architects about something they recently saw and
Zara Hadid: Vitra fire house
considered to be especially crazy, a Libeskind museum, a Gehry concert hall, a library by Zaha Hadid or simply the new building on their Main Street which they don't like because it is "different" instead of "contextutal.”  Usually the person who asks has already come to the conclusion that the building doesn't work well, that the architect was just designing himself or herself a "monument" while certainly being overpaid and the building certainly being too expensive. This type of question is set as a trap.  If confirming the questioner’s bias, one casts the profession in even more doubt, but confessing to like the structure in question puts one in the position of having to defend not only the judgment but each of the perceived flaws of the building, its price or the even the motives of the architect who designed it.
Daniel Libeskind: Denver Art Museum
Not all is bad, though. The architect in the movie usually plays good roles, looks attractive, and is successful with the opposite sex. Rarely would the film architect struggle to make a living or be an activist, seldom are they part of a team or do they work in a dreary government department. Instead, the prototypical architect, just like the artist, is seen as a freewheeling individual, eccentric, not too good with cooperation in the sandbox. In the US, Ayn Rand with her "Fountainhead" has sung this tune ad nauseam and done much damage to the profession. 

If things are designed in a lone creative act, it can't be a surprise that they don't work well, the thinking goes, no matter that Steve Jobs is usually cast as a lone hero as well and that the iPhone should have proven convincingly that good design and functionality can be one and the same. 

Architecture and music are closely related. A drawing is a score. Daniel Libeskind

As one can see, architecture is quite a minefield. Responses to this problem are diverse. The AIA as the chief defender of the profession has engaged in numerous branding activities to prove that "architects provide value."  Eisenmann blames architects who pursue arbitrary designs, Bjarke Ingels thinks architecture is too important to leave it to architects, Christopher Alexander tries to find basic rules of life that could inform architecture, Koolhaas is trying to "escape the architecture ghetto."  The remedies are as numerous as the architects and the cacophony emanating from all the voices reminds of springtime frogs in the firepond. 
Frank Loyd Wright with disciples

The normal architect with the nose on the grindstone may be so lucky that the deadlines and projects don't allow time or distance for such questions about architecture. More often than not, the average architect executes the work of some design principle, sits deep in the trenches of working drawings and CAD, and is so far removed from the prima-donnas of the profession quoted here that this entire undertaking to get to the meaning of architecture or analyze the self image of the architect seems outright frivolous. 

Architecture begins where engineering ends. Walter Gropius

Style as the unifying common denominator of architecture seems to have evaporated with "postmodernism" as the last attempt at a style. The days when master architects could brainwash their apprentices about how things must be done and what is acceptable and what is not based on cohesive intellectual constructs such as modernism seem to be a thing of the past and with it the optimism that architects can improve the world. Today design is so eclectic that there is more confusion than orientation. 

Sketch of Italian architecture,
Heinz Egenhofer, architect

And with the multitude of concepts comes the prevailing eclectic collaging of ideas and to make it even more confusing, an equally diverse range of production options for what we commonly call “design.” The once universal pencil sketch on "bum wad" as an idea taking shape on paper has yielded to a multitude of visualization methods that are much less tangible. Even though the old masters decry this wherever they can, young architects may begin their conceptualization not with pencil and paper but with Sketch-Up (a kind of electronic play dough), Photoshop or any other way of electronic production. It is a much debated question if architects can design without being able to draw by hand, without the time-worn practice of going to Rome and sketching Palladio's golden sections. It is unlikely, though, that the soul of the profession resides in a 6B pencil. Rather, design happens at the moment when an idea gets visualized and communicated in whatever medium, when something that has never existed before gets formed, reformed, rejected and recreated in this this process that the German’s call Entwurf, a word that has elements of casting and drafting.  Entwerfen heisst verwerfen one of my design professors used to say, designing means rejecting, thus describing the long iterative process towards an acceptable form. This design process is bound to fail, no matter how many iterations there are, if it isn't guided by some bigger idea or principle that provides the guardrails for the sketches. Loaning from French this formative concept is called the parti diagram. It is the foundational concept, the original big idea which architects like to memorialize as the "napkin sketch," the brain flash jotted down in the bar over a drink.
Design for the mundane: Bus Transit Center Langley Park
Architect: ArchPlan Inc.

Personally, I am fine with this confusing state of experimentation, with its multitude of questions and paucity of answers. I don't have a problem with seeing architecture as an optimization process for useful buildings and structures such as affordable housing developments or bus stations. These and other types of everyday projects are the result of a experts examination of a given problem from many angles, adjusted by a process of give and take, including ideas and rejections from communities, users, and the types who control the budgets. At best a decently workable, functioning, and affordable project takes shape, first on screens or paper and then, miraculously, on the "job-site". There, today as in the past, ideas become material and real, which is the most satisfying step of all in the life of an architect. I am deeply aware that this act is owed to those who get their hands dirty and I love construction administration where the architect goes to see the production, answer questions, and see to it that reality and drawings are in accordance. It is here where ideas find validation or repudiation, a learning process that no designer should miss. If the architect has been able to insert some creative aspects and designs somewhere in this long process from initial idea to final structure, and to maintain a big idea and consider the bigger context, then design can be its best, with form and function unified and created as a team effort. Then, form does not play the central role but is subsumed to a greater purpose befitting Ingels' quote:

Architecture is way too important to leave it to architects. Everybody should play a role in making our cities and buildings fit the lives we want to live.
Innovation: Rem Koolhaas, CCTV building, China
Sustainability or "Net Zero" provide welcome performance metrics about energy or materials, but they are not the greater purpose either. They may be a requirement, but they are nothing but a tool for a purpose. The purpose has to arise from the aspirations and from the functions and programs that were defined by the people who will use the building, structure, or space, or have to look at it from nearby. Most architecture still serves a noble but also simple purpose: To provide shelter, space, and accommodation, and make people comfortable. This can be said if a structure is for people to live, for people to work, to read books, see movies, for worship, to manufacture, to sell or buy merchandise, or for people that perform music, dance, or theater. As such, in spite of all challenges, architecture remains a noble profession.

Submit suggestions, opinions, and comments here under the group link, on the blog itself in the comment section, or via e-mail under kphilipsen@archplan.com. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
reviewed and edited by Ben Groff. 
Updated for NYT link 12/16/14

Related articles on this blog:

External Links:

Friday, November 28, 2014

What is Urban Design?

I was asked to define Urban Design and Master-planning in under 250 words each. The definitions will be used in an online application developed for the American Institute of Architects. After a brief intro those definitions can be found below. 

As hard as it is to describe to lay people what architects do, it may be even harder to define urban design and describe what urban designers do. Too much are residents of cities used to a system where city "just happens" and where what happens to the city is the result of politics and who has the power and not the result of masterplans or designs or big ideas. Too discredited are the modernists' models of garden cities and new towns that well intended as they were proved to be sterile and even anti urban.  Currently many settle with "Tactical Urbanism" as a way of using quick and bottom up response to shape cities rather than big ideas from the top.
Garden City, Ebenezer Howard

Nevertheless, ideas about cities, ideal plans and layouts, concepts that describe a framework for everything that makes a city are not at all a thing of the past. In the age of cities with more people living in cities not only in absolute numbers, but also in relation to the still growing global population (by now more than half), new very large cities are created from scratch in great numbers and they all start with design. Thus, the question what urban design is, is by no means obsolete and the same is true about the question of masterplanning. Finding young, gifted and creative people who are willing to choose urban design as their profession and understand urban design as an important component of system planning is vitally important to the future and well being of the planet. They need a clear understanding what this field of study entails.


Urban design is the art of designing cities, i.e. architecture taken to the urban scale, the site, the neighborhood or an entire city. It is age old, but as a specialized discipline in the US it was only institutionalized when Harvard started to offer Urban Design as a degree in 1960, after having introduced regional planning as a separate degree as early as 1923. Depending on the university and country, urban design is either part of the department of architecture as an elective, or minor for architecture students, or a separate degree.  
While architecture focuses on the buildings, urban design focuses on relationships between buildings and on the spaces they create in between each other, often called the "public realm."  Urban design typically entails spatial relations whereas planning has become the regulatory framework that controls uses, circulation, open space and generally speaking, two dimensional relations between public and private space.
 Urban design is typically not about regulation, but is more about designing a specific condition, and the art of designing a meaningful relation between the solid and the void, the building and the space, so that the void becomes as meaningful in its shape as the solid. (Well illustrated in the figure ground representation of urban space). Urban design includes consideration of networks and non-physical aspects such as visual relations, communication, transport, air flow, infrastructure and the like in such a manner that solids, voids and the various systems form synergies, are sustainable, resilient, and equitable.
Christoper Alexander: 15 Principles of Wholeness

Christopher Alexander, Introduction of "A New Theory of Urban Design"
When we look at the most beautiful towns and cities of the past, we are always impressed by a feeling that they are somehow organic.
This feeling of “organicness” is not a vague feeling of relationship with biological forms. It is not analogy. It is instead, an accurate vision of a specific structural quality which these old towns had… and have. Namely: each of these towns grew as a whole, under its own laws of wholeness… and we can feel this wholeness, not only at the largest scale, but in every detail: in the restaurants, in the sidewalks, in the houses, shops, markets, roads, parks, gardens and walls. Even in the balconies and ornaments.
This quality does not exist in towns being built today. And indeed, this quality could not exist, at present, because there isn’t any discipline which actively sets out to create it. Neither architecture, nor urban design, nor city planning, take the creation of this kind of wholeness as their task. So of course it doesn’t exist. It does not exist, because it is not being attempt.

MASTER PLANNING: Master planning is the creation of a framework in which development parcels, massing, heights, relationships of buildings, circulation, and streets are defined in enough detail to define predictable outcomes but with sufficient flexibility to allow various responses of actual developers and designers of which there may be several or many within one master plan area. A special case are “planned unit developments” (name varies by jurisdiction), or PUDs, in which the master plan and the actual development plan are often collapsed into one. Typically, master-plans are part of a regulatory planning toolkit and are formally adopted as part of zoning, comprehensive plans, “small area plans” or PUDs. Strategic plans of private entities or institutions are also often called master plans, even if they don’t deal with traditional planning elements such as buildings.
Chinese New Town (SAA Architects)

 Depending on the case, master plans can be more like two-dimensional planning documents codifying information for uses, heights, setbacks and the like, or be urban design documents including three dimensional aspects such as shapes, views, and other specific requirements which narrow down design options left to the designers of actual developments. With the increasing popularity of form-based code versus use-based code (Euclidian zoning) master-planning has become increasingly a matter for architects more so than planners.
 Master plans may include non-physical aspects such as funding, scheduling, or phasing. Larger organizations such as colleges or corporations may create master plans for their facilities that anticipate growth, transformation, and aim to create a blueprint for final build-out. Increasing the term master plan is used outside the arena of buildings and just like the term “architecture,” applied to organizational matters of various types.

Comments and suggestions refarding the defintions are welcome (best in the comments field below). We will investigate the creative act of design in architecture and urban design in future article on this blog.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
The definitions were reviewed and edited by Joongsub KimPh.D., AIA, AICP  and Jess Zimbabwe, AIA  both nominated as members of the Advisory Group of the Regional and Urban Design Knowledge Community of AIA

External Sources and References:

The Origins of Urban Design. Paper
Re-establishing Urban Design: Vittorio Lampugnani
The Urban design website
Christopher Alexander: A New Theory of Urban Design
Megacities at the MOMA

Friday, November 21, 2014

What Works: Developers on Design

“If you get the ground plane right you can put what you want on top”.
Transit is nice to have but the real success comes from the experience on the ground”
“You see if your open space design works if kids find something to do there”
“In the first phase [of development], sacrifice density to create a there”

Yards Park, Washington DC, concerts
“Bad suburban road standards compromise the value and success of your retail”
“TOD always starts with larger infrastructure investments and somebody has to carry that burden.”
“Open space is important but it is not about its size but its quality and programming”
          "I really like eminent domain” 
These are quotes from people describing what they believe the best approach to master planning and design to be.  These people are not architects, urban designers, planners, or economic development officials.  No, they were developers at an Urban LandInstitute (ULI) gathering about appropriate design around transit.  Specifically, the quoted investor/developers were Phil London, Senior VP of Comstock Partners and Don Briggs, President Federal Realty.

In this postmodern world, broad abstract intellectual constructs about urban design or architecture are as rare as new ideas about the world itself.   This is not a time to cast the net wide, write chartas or develop doctrines.  Instead, we muddle through. It is hard to know if a time when international movements agree on a whole set of ideas will ever emerge again. “Isms” of all kinds are discredited today, whether it is modernism or socialism, existentialism, or positivism. Even the Pope is questioning some of what seemed to be immutable truths of Catholicism.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, since the biggest damage seems to consistently originate with those who are so damn sure about everything.
Navy Yard redevelopment District of Columbia at the Anacostia river

Today, an era in which diversity is considered better than homogeneity, most pick their intellectual constructs eclectically from all kinds of sources, taking a page from nature instead of philosophy.  Purity isn't nature's thing, after all. 

Consequently, architects and planners look for guidance in urban design not so much from “grand masters” but from pragmatists, people who have succeeded in building something.  They look for precedents instead of ideological models, and check performance metrics instead of intellectual purity. Collin Rowe described the eclectic approach in Collage City.  Jane Jacobs taught planners to observe ordinary people instead of following a school of thought and broke open the field of urban design and planning to laypeople such as herself, a journalist. The Danish architect Jan Gehl who elevated observation as a guide for architectural and urban design practice, became an internationally sought after expert for his pragmatic implementation of observed preferences, not for his ingenious design theories. It makes a lot of sense then, to ask investors and developers who have worked with a great number of designers and planners what worked best for them.

An organization such as ULI is perfect to do so, as it reflects the views not only of design professionals but the views of all practitioners who participate in real estate and in the process of building cities and developments. People who are active in ULI include architects, planners, landscape architects, academics, economists, real estate agents, investors and developers.  At ULI there is more than just opinion, there is research, there are fellows, there is an ever more global reach and there are publications and conferences in which results are shared.

A small such “conference” took place in mid-November at the “NavyYards” in DC, a 3 million square foot redevelopment area in the District of Columbia that brought together Mid-Atlantic speakers and the members of ULI councils in DC and Baltimore to learn about successful transit oriented development (TOD). The quotes at the beginning of this article are from that event; but those and many others could have been collected in a myriad of similar smaller gatherings or in big ones, such as the ULI fall conference earlier this year taking place in New York City with 6000 ULI members gathered to listen to Rob Speyer, CEO of Tishman Speyer speak about what is driving the resurgence of cities worldwide.

It is noticeable how the observations from developers about what projects work and why have shifted from quantitative to qualitative aspects. Of course, cost and benefit expressed in the quantitative metric of dollars is still the ultimate guide, but it is now widely realized that inclusion of some kinds of costs that would have been in past times characterized as external costs can be part of a project’s value proposition, and ultimately improve returns. Often, investments that used to be financed with public funds need now to become development cost due to the scarcity of public funds. Examples presented at the Navy Yard gathering included infrastructure investments in transit (building a new transit stop along a line where there was none before such as in the case of Assembly Row in Somerville, MA) but predominantly how strategically placed open spaces and parks can be openers and value enhancers for projects of various kinds.
Assembly Row, Sumerville MA

An example that has long been used to illustrate value creation through private and public park investments is Bryant Park in Manhattan. It was mentioned numerous times as the model for the Yards Park, a waterfront park that preceded much of the development in the Navy Yards redevelopment area and created a brand and presence in the District by drawing thousands of visitors to the area through events and the general attractiveness of the park. The second park in the Navy Yards development, the Olin designed Canal Park, is also well-programmed, attractive, and doubles up as a stormwater management facility. However, both parks were funded through the District and are maintained now by BID (the local business improvement district), still with public funds, not the special tax assessments that BID collects.

It was maybe the developer-turned-advocate-for-smart-growth Chris Leinberger who originated the the trend of developers emphasizing quality over quantity, having become prominently regarded for his warnings that the US builds too much of the wrong kind of stuff in the wrong places. Leinberger recognized early on that demographic shifts have created a new demand for high quality urban settings and expresses these views frequently from his pulpit as a Brookings Institution fellow. 

At the ULI event, architects from Cooper Carry, Torti Gallas, and WDG had the floor to teach lessons about good development around transit as well. ("Start with an armature of infrastructure, streets, and open space – only then fill in," David Kitchens, of Cooper Carry about a Leesburg Pike TOD). Still, the most memorable lessons came from the developers attested by their messages quoted above
Kid friendly: The Yards Park

Architects, landscape architects, urban designers and planners should pay attention to what enlightened developers and investors have to say. Their precedents and models can guide us better to good urban plans than many theories written for other times, and what the developers know has been tested and shown to work.  Most notably, all the relevant examples presented at the ULI event in DC were based on sound community participation. They were neither academic constructs nor were they simply dropped by powerful players on an unsuspecting population acting as guinea pigs, instead they were the result of expensive and elaborate outreach and involvement. As Jane Jacobs observed a long time ago, one just has to find out what people want and how they use the city to create good design.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff