26 June 2016


Del Mar Station Pasadena CA - Image by Doug Joyce

Bringing density back in to city making has been back in vogue for awhile with the reintroduction of the 'Transit Oriented District'. This hasn't been without its disappointments.

As transit lines have been surgically placed back in to urban areas, it's also being justified and strengthened by new development, dense and mixed in its use. All for the purpose of cutting back on vehicle traffic, and to bring forth the communal virtues of a great city. To some, the results are questionable and disappointing- in developments near where I live here in Southern California, the developments have been accompanied by greatly increased vehicle traffic, transit use is doing OK, and many times walking districts have turned out to be a disappointment.

The money spent on the transit infrastructure and the model for density is now being greatly discredited by an increasing portion of the media and the public- while expending very little effort as to why this model isn't working to expectation. Unfortunately, density proponents are pitching a 'glass half empty' (learn to sacrifice!) approach to teach the public how to live in these places.

Let's go back and remember that we were doing this stuff to make people's lives better; the premise of increased density is based on the fact that if things are closer (and closer together), then the effort to take part in those things should be easier. Why drive for fifteen minutes, when you can walk for five?

What is forgotten is that the success (or failure) of these places are based on a thousand tiny details.

Some of these details are:
  • Walking experience that is completely thought through, providing a pleasant and safe experience to someone on foot
  • Availability of easy to use services, especially for those on foot
  • Superior mobility experiences beyond the use of motor vehicles
  • Provide centralized parking, but diminish its importance in planning new urban developments
  • Design to fully exploit and support the public realm, graceful and well designed transition spaces, and support an accommodating private spaces
  • Simplify legalistic zoning and planning processes that are ill-equipped to provide the level of design nuance required to make these developments more accommodating, and easier to use.
  • Consideration of personal transportation issues is not the only thing-- delivery of goods and services must be carefully conceived and implemented
  • New transit systems design needs be better-'if we build it, they will come' by itself doesn't cut it.
  • More attention needs to be paid to 'Last Mile' logistics, not just at the residential side, but on the employment and commercial destination side
  • The quality quality of TOD projects in general isn't what it should be.
  • Land deals and legal entitlements overwhelm the quality of design. These 'making life easier' details listed above become afterthoughts because of this.

The results of all of this is that these projects simply end up fulfilling a need for housing (and that's a real need!) without doing the rest of the design and the homework to make the shift. The folks will still bring in their cars, and conduct their lives with cars for transport to work, to the store, to a Restuarant, to see friends, and most of the other things that they do, even though they are right by a transit stop for some things and within easy walking for other. Because that is still the easiest way.

We now experience these efforts at density as severely traffic impacted, missing the sustainability features that were promised. Public opinion is slowly turning against these projects because of these broken promises. Yet the basic premise for these kinds of interventions and Capitol expenditures is still sound. Unfortunately, if we refuse to confront the way we do these projects, favoring the crass and legalistic over the well considered design, then the promise of transit and density will remain an unfulfilled dream. If we just do land deals and provide up zoning without understanding and providing for how to make things easier for people that live in these areas, these projects will provide as many problems as solutions.

03 January 2016


Guggenheim Museum New York - Image by Doug Joyce

Happy New Year!

In the art world there exists a strong impetus to create the new and unprecedented, something to bring notoriety, and maybe even shock-value with the work. It is a desire to change the way we all see art, if not change the world. Architecture is an active participant in this drive towards the new, and for some that pursue architecture as their life’s work, there is this same desire. Most who pursue this will not be noticed, but there will be a few who are actually talented and diligent enough to do this notorious work and become stars. Architects for the ages!

I love these stars, these architects destined to be embedded in history. However, my deepest admiration goes towards those who are going for something beyond just the shock of the new, those who reach out beyond the theoretical and the making of icons. I admire the most those who seek craft as well as art.

Building in a city is an act of participation with a greater whole; it coincides with the world-view of the crafts-person, but not necessarily the view of the ambitious artist. In both function and form, there are a number of relationships that occur between a new building and its neighbors. This is inevitable, and I admire the architect that understands that. It is a given that a building that makes a proper contribution to a city must be good architecture, by anyone's standards; well conceived, perhaps encompassing an underlying set of rules (a theory!)to inform its design. It is well built, and accommodates both users and those who pass by. These are often buildings that aren't noticed until you pass by a couple of times; once they catch the eye, they proceed to delight as they open themselves up for the first time to those who notice. Most often they are not generally featured on the covers of magazines. Their design brief is to be a piece of a whole city. They exchange the notoriety of creating an icon for the act of contributing to the greater art piece, the city. They are places that are virtuoso in many small ways, understood and loved more over time.

I do think that a challenge and an opportunity is being missed. Intellectually interesting architectural theories and geometric constructs can be adapted away from icon production, and incorporate the existing urban fabric, both in function and in the built form. The fourth dimension can even be added, mapping where the city has been and even to where it is going. Very interesting work could be produced from this.

At any rate, here are some things to keep in mind to make a great building that contributes to a great city:

  • How does the building present itself and react to the great sculpture of negative space that is the public room: the street?
  • There should be an understanding and provision for those transition elements that add quality to the street and to the private spaces within. No blank walls on city streets!
  • Create passageways and other connections to break down the scale of the block; this is especially important to the most dense urban environments, where creating successful walking environments is a necessity.
  • Providing contrast to context is OK, and sometimes even desirable, but claiming ignorance to it is unspeakably dumb.

For someone making a building, a baseline design goal is to understand how that project contributes to the whole city, and to acknowledge the importance these truths play in the composition of cities. It would help if the critical discourse was more nuanced in the so-called battle between traditionalists and star system designers, allowing for a deeper understanding of the relationship of any building with its urban surroundings along side the pursuit of art. Those in the architectural elite see themselves as the vanguard of excellence in the built environment, bastions of the art versus mediocrity. Unfortunately, this group, at its worst, creates mutations of the master design ethic, skewed towards the building forms alone. The refusal to be a contributor to the greater city form, is a shame, and if the icon doesn't make peace with its surroundings, it won't stand the test of time.

The city itself is a work of art, as well as being a living, breathing piece of infrastructure. It is a wondrous, complicated, and multi-layered piece of sculpture. It isn't a car lot for exotic sports cars, or a bakery display for artistic cakes.


03 November 2015


Guggenheim Museum New York - Artist Natascha Sadr Haghighian - Photo by Doug Joyce

A group of my colleagues got all excited about an article in the Wall Street Journal (Subscription Wall), written about the architectural profession, its current complications, and how architectural schools aren't supplying well-prepared graduates. Architects are loosing ground coping with an increasingly complex world, and my colleagues were willing to assess a good amount of blame towards the architecture schools. Theirs is the age-old complaint about the schools curriculum being about everything except for what it takes to be an architect.

With due respect to my colleagues, I believe this complaint in fact obscures a much larger problem, which is doing a job in a world where there are too many steps towards getting something done in a satisfying incomplete way. Too many steps for any educational curriculum to properly prepare a student.

The reality is, as the world is experiencing a tidal-wave of complications, with everything that we do. This is especially true with the typical building project, and blaming schools for not preparing for this misses the point.


Here are a few heavily administrated design elements that architects now encounter; if it existed 30 years ago, it existed as good design practice:

  • Sustainability
  • Entitlements and Environmental Law
  • Community Design Review
  • Geometrically Expanded Building Code
  • Accessibility

Don't misunderstand me. These things are all very important. And they were all implemented with just a passing interest in how the practitioner would actually go through the motions of fulfilling these requirements of each of these items. One on top of another. Dropped on an industry that had a large percentage of small to medium practitioners, without the internal staff to cope. The regulations, written without care as to implementation, have greatly increased the number of specialists and consultants, forcing a focus shift from the design of the whole building, to orchestrating a series of maneuvers to get a project built. And fewer people sweating the small stuff about building design.

I would suggest that it its time to look at these regulations, and how they work together. Some goals would be:

  • Cut out redundancy and overlapping of rules
  • De-fang the wild-west way some laws are administrated, that tests code interpretation with lawsuits inflicted on the backs designers
  • Create common codes and administrative practices, with only a few exceptions. Most individual community code and entitlement practices are a gross waste of effort

If our whole professional effort is made towards fulfilling multi-leveled permissions, it takes away from a profession that once was focused on making appropriate, functional, and beautiful building projects.

And you really can't blame the schools for not keeping up with this. They are struggling with this along with the rest of us.

20 June 2015


Waterlogue-2015-06-19-17-36-01 copy
New York City - Image by Doug Joyce

A few more thoughts about my post from January.

Overcomplicated and time-consuming processes do not make better cities. But we are on an arc (that 'second way' I described in January) where the momentum of overlapping rules and processes have become way more important then the craft of building great cities.

Our system of rules, administrated by municipal employees, with oversight by commissions and boards is reaching the point where creative people can't work with the process any more. Add to that the public hearing processes, filled with NIMBY contentiousness and misinformation, add a disheartening misery on top of that arduous process, and you see what I'm getting at. It’s a system that is patterned after the basic rule of law, but it's overlaid again and again by a continual stream of new rules, addressing the concern of the day, but tossed in without any regard for the total process.

These rules and administrative procedures weigh heavily on the design process it takes to make great buildings and cities. Often they are necessary, or at least a good idea.

But when the process becomes more important then the craft, when the process for waiting through entitlements consumes way more effort then the design itself, then we deny ourselves the best possible and most creative outcomings in city building. The neglected discipline of streamlining and making sense of the whole of rules and regulations must begin.

Here are some ideals to consider:

  • Regulations are for the public good; but when the regulatory process overwhelms the design process, that’s not good.
  • Flexibility should inform the process and be baked-in to the code. Strict adherence to poorly though-out guidelines doesn’t make for great cities.
  • Administrators of cities are trained in planning schools, and become experts at public policy, with little knowledge of design; and they have no knowledge of the process of design. That’s backwards; how about administrators who know design as much as they now 'the code'.

It will take awhile to undo the mess we’ve made of the process of building cities. We should start to make those changes right now.


31 January 2015


Suburban commercial street - Image by Doug Joyce

In the United States of America, we believe in a democracy based on the rule of law. The thought is that the rule of law will create a better society, one that promotes Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. As civilization has progressed, no-one seems to have come up with a better idea.

Taking this idea, and translating it into how we make cities, the Democratic choice and the rule of law guides us to build in one of two ways, and in America, we've done both.

The first way is to develop a culture of reason and trust, creating a (more or less) common vision for good of the community, and then employing the best minds to getting the job done. This creates a 'virtuous cycle', employing others of like minds and talents as the community grows. As positive results are produced, the stronger the culture of reason and trust becomes. This is not a way without accountability; this is not a ticket to build selfishly or shabbily. It is not permission to say, "I'll build whatever I want, it's a free country".

The second way is more complicated. It replaces trust (after all, people just can't be trusted, who are we kidding), with an infinite and interminable reading of the rule of law. This is a culture of a new rule to plug every hole in the dam, a philosophy that no process is too complicated. It is a culture that believes that solving society's issues and problems (in our case, City building) is best accomplished by litigation. The results resemble design by committee.

This is the road we are on right now. Our design-by-committee cities (with a few eyesores that slip by, or the occasional starchitect indulgence) are the result.

There is nothing in the definition of Democracy that says it must be as complicated and painful as possible. Nor is it a license to hurt others and evade the public good. Cities are at their best when they serve the people who live in them, and are loved by them. When the people who design and build them are not held accountable, that won't happen. But it hard to make a city that can be loved by forcing our trusted creative designers, planners, and architects do their jobs hopping on one leg with their arms tied behind their backs.


10 January 2015


View from the Tate Modern - Image by Doug Joyce

Over the holidays we took a trip to London England.

It is a place where successive generations layer their city building atop what their predecessors built. Old buildings and infrastructure are honored and preserved, but are kept alive by new adaptations within the preserved structures.The character and history of the place are realized everywhere you look. Yet the hand of the current generation of designers is also everywhere. The past is honored and preserved, and yet the excitement of the new is also clearly at hand.

An example of this would be the new underground station at Westminster Abby. Above, there is the traditional setting, with a discrete entrance. Below grade, a state of the art transportation hub is revealed, accommodating and beautiful to look at. Another example is the top floor restaurant at the Tate modern museum, a sleek and classy venue that overlooks the traditional view over the Thames across to St. Paul's. And there is Norman Foster's inner core addition to the British Museum, and appropriate and unifying modern addition to the venerable institution.

I find these wonderful interventions to support the principals of the Crafted City. They support the public life of the city- they tend to work within the existing city fabric and provide great transition spaces and encourage the processional qualities along city streets. They keep a city alive and vital, and keep it from being a museum piece. These interventions are done with love and respect for what took place before, with the eye of a craftsman.


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