Thursday, January 28, 2010

The iPad is going to be transformational for architecture

Apple iPad, originally uploaded by iLounge.

...We just need some savvy app developer to create a multi-touch drafting tool, probably jigging up a knock off of SketchUp. You will see architects picking it up once they realize how much 10 fingers working in unison can triple their modeling production. They will simply outproduce their mouse-bound brethren. Here is the interface I was waiting for! Of course, since I already carry a "man bag" for my sketchbook and pens, it won't be a great adjustment for me to tote around. The architectural digirati, who have long left the manual arts, will probably adjust to it grudgingly. Eventually, it will come to the architecture office in the form of a more ample cousin "the iTable" (Steve Jobs are you listening?). ...Yes, I cannot wait to sit at a semblance of a drafting table again!

I predict that it will be graphic artists who will pick up on the multi-touch drawing utility first. So if Adobe has its act together it should already be working on a multi-touch version of Illustrator. Keeping my fingers crossed...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Architecture: 5¢ (Vision: $120/hr) ...Why the World Needs More Architects

Architects all over are preparing for lean times. With 20% of of them laid off since last summer, many are facing the stark reality that they may never return to the career (or pay scale) that made the grinding misery of grad school and their long slog of internships pay off. A NYT report about laid-off architects searching novel ways to find clients or strike out in new directions is stirring quite a discussion among architects in Charlotte (and I'm sure nationwide). So I thought I'd take this opportunity to add my own 2 cents to the discussion.

In Charlotte, the statistics of laid off architects are miserable. Last June, our local business journal reported the claim that a whooping 40% of Charlottean architects had been laid off since the recession started. When I read this I wondered whether the nation now had twice the number of architects it could employ. But I have plenty of reasons to think otherwise.

First off, hats off to the laid-off architects who are branching out from their traditional client base and putting their hard earned skills to work creatively in fields that may not be associated with "architecture". There are plenty of Design problems out there that architects can contribute to, even if a building is not involved. So kudos for going out and finding them. Thankfully, I'm a product of architecture graduate school, so I know what we were really trained to tackle from our earliest Level I studio. If your professors were even vaguely competent, they did not "teach" you architecture...rather they trained you to think like a designer. A designer deals with the world as we encounter it. This recession too is a problem of an architectural malaise, spurred by our own work or the work that left us, and therefore, architects need to creatively design the solution.

Secondly, architects need to be doing more to put their design skills to work in big infrastructure projects. Architects have something special to bring to the table that those more analytically minded people that tend to run governments and build roads do. Working with DPZ Charlotte on the Charlotte Streetcar Project last week reminded me of the great gifts that architects bring to all complicated projects as generalists (DPZ is a town planning firm that is led by generalist-minded architects). (More on DPZ Charlotte's streetcar work later.) (BTW, DPZ Charlotte are the creators of Habersham).

Large city projects need architects. Not just for visualizing what the planned transformations will be, but to actually help define and refine the task of transformation. If cities were smart, every big infrastructure project would involve an architect at the earliest stages, where decisions can have the greatest impact in the direction of a project. What you need architects for is to see the larger context with greater clarity, to understand the potential for unthought-of options, and to frame the vision.

I often wonder what many projects would have been like had their task definition not gone first to in-house bureaucrats or analytically minded consultants who apply a decision branch tree approach to things... defining a project's scope with narrow circumstances in mind and not seeing that perhaps the basis of the project’s approach to addressing the needs is partly the problem. Ever notice that architects like to poke around guts of the project definition list first, before they trust the scope items as defined, asking a whole bunch of why and what if questions (and not just because they are fee curious)? They are big picture minded. Architects are folks that gauge things from the broad perspective and from the particular, simultaneously. They then tend to interrogate each piece of the project wonderfully for its "potentialities". More than the project task matters to them, and their design work will pull from a broad range of precedents (globally) and address those transformational steps that the project will undergo in its context long after their services are warranted. After all, they are on the hook for the long-term success of the building.

What makes architects good “generalists” is what they do. Architecture is difficult. This is why it often takes until late in life before they become masters. Architecture requires a lot of knowledge, thought and experience. It also requires Vision. The creative yet practical and circumspect kind. An architect’s work forces her to jump in and out of a number of scales constantly. She has to keep in mind and to juggle an immense array of pecuniary demands in the messy soup of moving parts that is the building process (a degree to which us planning types are not experienced with, trust me). Yet she is always aware of the building in its completion, the goal that must be attained to meet its aesthetic and social purpose. This adds a layer of cultural demands other professions do not have to bother with in the forefront. Architects think about the intangibles and their sensitivity for the aspirations of the community need to be listened to. The mode of thinking that the architectural design process cultivates can be a gift to any complicated project. Yes, planners and engineers complain that the architect’s proposals may overshoot pragmatic concerns, yet architects are extremely competent at responding to limitations because they are daily finding novel solutions to problems that don’t sacrifice design goals, project unity and quality. Actually, architects train themselves to overshoot because they distrust limitation. They definitely do not want limits to set the tone. This mentality they take for granted. Indeed, competent architects typically find much more goals for a project and obtain more solutions to limitations than their clients are ever aware that they need.

So…Even if an architect peddles his “architecture” services for 5¢ at the village market, be aware that the rest of the fee he will charge you for is his broad-banded Vision. Architects are consultants of Vision. And every project requires Vision (and corrective lenses). Please hire these guys and gals for more than just for “architecture”. ‘)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cracks in the Building Blocks of Mixed Use Vitality

On my recent trip surveying many recent urbanist developments in South Carolina and Georgia, one of the worrisome conditions I encountered in some of the neighborhood developments I came across was their relative lack of continuity with existing business corridors and neighborhood centers. Even the most excellent of the urbanist developments (such as DPZ's Habersham and Dover, Kohl and Partners' Glenwood Park) seemed to be inwardly focused; as a consequence, their mixed use neighborhood centers and most of their retail assets seemed to suffer from relative lack of business exposure. I just hope the depopulated conditions I encountered only reflect the post-holiday winter doldrums. Nonetheless, I was left quite discomfited by the supportability of their storefronts. The notion of empty storefronts overtaking these developments should really worry us as urbanists. The UK's High Street Blues and the empty storefronts popping up all over Manhattan, aren't exactly a great argument for Jane Jacobs style urbanism. I shudder to think how the failure of recent LEED-ND worthy development can sell urbanism to banks and developers.

There are enough special challenges to overcome in the implementation of mixed use development...enough to make even a well-meaning architect stay up at night.'s easy to build a vital city streetcape in Legoland, but in reality, it is almost a miracle to design and execute. And once realized, the vitality of mixed use buildings continues to remain tenuous, primarily because retail downstairs tends to have a much higher turnover and inherent fragility than the residential portion of the development, which places extra challenges on those wanting to invest in such real estate options.

A friend of mine, who lives in the Iveys Building on Tryon Street in Uptown Charlotte right in the shadow of BOA Headquarters, tells me BOA is desperately trying to unload foreclosed units, so right now they are going for a steal. Yet my friend recounted to me his frustrating experience finding financing to purchase another condo unit in the building, which he is eager to invest in. He can't find a willing lender as the Iveys contains retail space that is more than 20% of the total building area. FHA will not allow loans for that condition, as retail failure would impact the solvency of the HOA. The fact that the retail fronts our High Street in Charlotte bears no impact. Like the UK's boneheaded empty shop tax, FHA regulations and compliance standards pose a withering blow to the continuity of mixed use investment on Charlotte's Tryon Street. Are High Street Blues coming soon to Charlotte?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Alligator Urbanism

I'm back from my favorite town...Savannah, and new thoughts on odonomy abound (more later). I just spent a week surveying great developments in South Carolina and Georgia.

The development work I was most struck with were the interesting developments on the Marietta Street Corridor in Atlanta and DPZ-planned Habersham, near Beaufort, SC (all the photos here are of Habersham).

The biggest surprise of the trip was my first visit to Hilton Head Island, which I may blog more about later. Hilton Head showed me that a sustainable type of sprawl actually exists. Its really remarkable job integrating infrastructure for bike/ped transport was some of the most stellar I've ever seen. Of course, Hilton Head was built for bike use from its inception, and its relentlessly controlled planning represents a resort-style urbanism (or sustainable sprawlism?), the kind that is way out of the adoptable range and integrative capacity of most suburban communities. But the respect to the landscape was superb. Hilton Head's nearly unbroken sea pine canopy and high standards for vegetated screening are a work of amazement. You really do get the impression that alligators coexist happily with humans in that sprawl. I'm surprised as a planner that I haven't heard more about Hilton Head, especially as we are now increasingly confronted with the problem of sustainably "retrofitting" our suburbs.

Both Hilton Head and Habersham made me appreciate the potential of landscape design to make sprawl more sustainable...and a rich experience - the kind that appeals strongly to most Americans. Call it golf-cart urbanism if you like, but I really like it when golf-course tested landscape architects get involved in urban design. The results are very interesting, and I was quite surprised at the level of thought we can glean from these experts to carry over into our TOD's and urban developments.

So far, Habersham is the best TND sprawl I've seen ( beautiful and interesting sprawl!). While Habersham for sure appeals to the second home 55 and over crowd that populates these places around Hilton Head, evidence abounds that a fair amount of families with children live in the neighborhood.

If you are an urban designer, landscape architect or planner, a good vacation to consider is a trip to Savannah/Hilton Head. You are guaranteed at least three treats: Savannah's Historic District (with its unparalleled grid of insights - yes more odonomic contemplation is in order!), Hilton Head Island's tremendously cohesive and well-integrated bike paths (with a trail system featuring boardwalks through the swampy areas, BMP's and parks), and Habersham.

Habersham, in a way, represents a more urbanistic approach to do Hilton Head, and it employs road and landscape design at a level of subtlety that left me there for hours carefully observing the details. To me it represents the best imaginative work of DPZ I've seen so far. You can tell they really went out of their way to prove that design for 18 mph can be interesting - never "one size" and "one solution" and always respecting and purposefully integrating the existing trees and site conditions.

If you do go... Do NOT forget...Be sure to bring a bike!