Sunday, May 31, 2009

Peril of the Forgotten

One of the most amazing and sad sights from my trip last year to Detroit was a swing 'round the disheveled and crumbling Michigan Central Depot, a massive train station built by the same architects responsible for NYC's iconic Grand Central Station. With it's monumental scale and litany of busted out windows, our group was both wowed and amazed by the fate of such a historic resource in the City. While the City Council recently voted to demolish the building, a movement to save and reuse the structure was pointed out in a recent post by the Infrastructurist which is definitely worth a read.

:: images via The Infrastructurist

Time for some of the historic preservationists to get moving on this one, as it'd be a shame for this to be gone the next time I'm in Detroit. Just imagine what it could be... or we shall just forget that it ever was?

:: images via The Infrastructurist


A kind commenter directed me to the site Alt/Urbs. An online journal billed as 'an electronic potlatch', the site is open for submissions of unpublished work related to 'alternative urbanization, design, and radical urban geography'. It's an interesting usage of the term 'potlach' to describe the process - but overall the idea is good... and some of the minimal content so far is interesting. One significant piece of scholarship is related to urban farming...

:: image via Alt/Urbs

... and a more visual exploration via multiple posts called Diagramming (U)topophillia, which "...has searched for the place of ‘utopia’ in relation to cyberspace, the public commercial centre, and the private home/work place. Currently, it appears as if the ‘souk’ is the last form of ‘public’ space. Cyberspace, on the other hand, represents a metaphoric free zone of nothingness that takes a likeness to general utopian theory."

:: images via Alt/Urbs

From the site: "What we’d like to see: articles, case studies, book reviews, research, design projects or any other data on alternative urbanisms. The subject matter and extent of your effort can vary depending on your agenda, whether it is a short paragraph and images, or an extensive focus on particular subject matter, (i.e. social issues, geographies, ecologies, built environments, utopias, anarchies, etc.) The intent is to disseminate information on different, or uncommon types of living throughout history."

It will be interesting to see how popular this model becomes as a forum for work - particularly as the site expands and is more known... and definitely interesting to see is a coherent and readable narrative comes out of an open and minimally guided call for contributions. One of those ideas that make the new modes of communication very interesting. Looking forward to seeing more, and if you have something to contribute, additional information on submittal requirements is available on the site.

North Dakota - Mobile Chaplet

It is not too often that North Dakota architecture gets the nod from Some recent coverage from Bustler featured one of the 2009 AIA Small Projects Awards for the 'Mobile Chaplet' by Moorhead & Moorhead.

:: image via Bustler

"Mobile Chaplet is one of six portable spaces for reflection commissioned to travel to rural communities around the state of North Dakota as part of the Roberts Street Chaplet Project. The conceptual starting points for Mobile Chaplet were the covered wagons that transported settlers to the Midwest. The final pattern consists of two vaulted forms, one nested inside the other. Constructed on a trailer bed, the vaulted canopy is composed of over 200 thirty-foot long thermoplastic composite rods. A bench floats above the trailer bed supported by the rods, which also act as a backrest for the bench."

The idea of a form on the flat prairie is very apt for North Dakota, where the grandness of forms can be more restrained - a subtlety that is very appropriate to context. Also, the concept of a chaplet has an interesting dual meaning (and I could make a case that this weaves into both sides)... particularly in the idea of prayer beads which "....are considered "personal devotionals," and there is no set form and therefore they vary considerably. While the usual five decade rosary may be referred to as a chaplet, often chaplets have fewer beads than a traditional rosary and a different set of prayer" juxtaposed with the idea of a metal support "...used in casting to support the core of a mold. A chaplet is incorporated with the part being cast and so is generally made of materials that has higher melting point than the liquidified casting metal."

Horizontal v. Vertical Farming

As a continuation of a common recent theme, Treehugger offers some additional questions, as well as a really cool example of a horizontal farm - The Zuidkas, by Architectenbureau Paul de Ruiter from the Netherlands. The post makes the case for horizontal vs. vertical farming as perhaps a more realistic opportunity for integrated urban agriculture. Using rooftop greenhouses, along with captured waste heat from buildings, shortening the distance from food to fork and incorporating mixed use into the buildings.

:: images via Treehugger

This decentralized method seems to make sense, although it'd be interesting to see if you could actually grow enough food to sustain the residents of the building using just the available rooftop area. Thus the hybrid between terrestrial farms and intensive vertical farms in one location may be hundreds and thousands of these interventions... and the good thing, the concept, albeit stylized here, could be pragmatically retrofitted to buildings (in the Zabar's model from NYC).

:: images via Treehugger

Some info about the interesting opportunities for closed loop systems that use building inputs and outputs: "The design includes a glass shell that covers the configuration of the ground level and naves, creating a variety of climate buffers, that will work as an intermediate zone that naturally tempers the effects of the outside climate. The shell surrounding the building strongly reduces the surface area responsible for the loss of heat during the winter and cold during the summer. The buffer area facing south functions as a sun lounge for the homes. Thanks to the buffer effect, the loss of heat in the winter is reduced. In the summer, the sun lounge cools the adjacent areas thanks to the stack effect. In this process, fresh air is sucked in and constantly circulated. It will be possible to open the exterior shell, to prevent the area behind the shell from becoming too hot."

Some more images from the De Zuidkas site, along with additional information.

:: images via De Zuidkas

I'm not saying this is a panacea as well - just a good looking and functionally viable of the concept in theory. The point is not to say that vertical farms don't have merit, but I like the well-rounded discussion of urban agriculture that includes full buildings, rooftops, walls, vacant lots, backyards, community gardens - the entire fabric. Feeding people in urban areas, and reducing the distance from food to fork requires integrated planning, design, and implementation. Let's keep that conversation going...!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Escape to Book Mountain

As a self-professed bibliophile... I was excited by the recent visuals fo MVRDV's Book Mountain - the coolest library I've seen since the Seattle Public Library by Koolhaas . Check out more from World Architecture News, with some description of how the project "...will feature the literal translation of 'a mountain of reading' by creating a transparent layer around the book stacking system. With a surface of 10,000 m² the library will use a glass membrane, referred to as the 'bell jar', to make a feature of the contents creating an evolving picture from the outside when books are borrowed, replaced and moved."

:: images via WAN

Experiment in Urban Chickens

I've posted before about the preponderance of urban chickens (especially in Portland) - and I just had to share the plans we have for our deluxe urban eco-coop in the back yard... (now if I could just register for LEED with this... :) I'll post some progress pics as is goes together... for now some Sketchup.

:: images via L+U

While Sketchup is great for visualization, it was actually a great exercise to build this - every stick is accounted for, and generate a materials list - definitely a good way to try out the design and some of the framing, materials, and color beforehand... as well as the spatial arrangement for the chicken abode.

:: images via L+U

Friday, May 29, 2009

Bad Idea of the Week

This one from Treehugger made me question what the actual point of this exercise was in the grand scheme of landscape and furnishings... "Michel Bussien has designed a new way to help you get up close and personal with nature--by turning it into furniture. The "Growing Chair" shown is a sharply designed mold that allows you to turn greenery into a chic seat."

:: image via Treehugger

There's an interesting history of integrated furnishings and literally bending plants to our will to create structures and furnishings. This seems like torture for the plants to fill the lucite containers, offering nothing good for the plant and little for us in these clear prisons of furnishings. Maybe you can read more from Treehugger and the designer and decide for yourself how you feel. I'm not buying it..

:: image via Treehugger

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Pringle Creek + the Gravel Verge

Building on some recent posts on the SEA streets in Seattle, and Crown Street in Vancouver, BC, a few images of Pringle Creek - the uber sustainable community in Salem, Oregon. A significant feature is the use of the gravel verges - popularized by Patrick Condon these curbless sections allow infiltration on the edges of streets, as well as reducing construction costs.

:: Site Plan - image via Jetson Green

From their site: "Pringle Creek Community in Salem has one of the largest installations of pervious asphalt in the country. The green streets are narrower than conventional streets, using less materials to build and calming traffic. They have no curbs, which reduces construction costs and allows vegetated swales to capture, absorb and clean stormwater runoff."

:: image via GreenWorks

:: image via Pringle Creek

The use of permeable asphalt and curb bulb-outs is sort of a belt and suspenders approach, but together creates a very unique environment and aids in traffic calming and the ability to manage greater amounts of stormwater runoff (and look, sidewalks!) It will be interesting to see how the permeability holds up during construction of the houses, which is slowly happening over time... slowly.

:: images via GreenWorks

Another aspect of the community was the ability to route roadways, and limit impacts to existing large trees, giving a feel of a much more established community. And the rain gardens are waiting patiently for new residents to enjoy them.

:: images via GreenWorks

It's definitely telling to see the interface with the porous and non-porous surfaces, here at one of the site entries. Also a quick video showing the performance of the permeable asphalt pavement. (both via the Pringle Creek Blog)

:: image via Pringle Creek Blog

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

DeWinging: Dragonfly

Ok, let me start off by saying I'm a big fan of wildly speculative work that pushes the boundaries of thought and expands the thinking of our urban spaces and landscapes. That said, I'm started to chafe at the preponderance of overwrought schemes flown about under the guise of skyscraper or vertical farming (previously discussed here, here, and here). It seems as a fashion du jour, anything goes both stylistically and fantastically, and has recently spawned a new species - the Dragonfly - by Vincent Callebaut Architects which if you've been hibernating, or out working in the garden like myself, you've spotted on no fewer than a dozen blogs in the last couple of weeks. So here's my half-hearted rant against the inevitable (given with a grain of salt, or maybe a sprinkle of slow-release organic fertilizer).

:: image via Inhabitat

Ok, maybe it's not fair, but I despise this building... for starters, it's ugly as hell (even for a future new york). Second, it's derivative biomimicry hidden behind flashy graphics and some equally derivative text: Some of the derivation, via Arch Daily: "The metal and glass wings, directly inspired by the exoskeleton of a dragonfly, house the plant and animal farms. Due to the appropriate sun and wind conditions within these wings, proper soil nutrient levels can be achieved to maximize plant growth. Exterior vertical gardens filter rain water, and once that water is mixed with domestic liquid waste, both are treated organically in order to be reused for farming needs."

:: image via Inhabitat

The building is essentially sci-fi, so is specifically framed as a futuristic technology that I guess the world isn't quite ready for. Materially, it's got some cool imagery, specifically the derivatives from Dragonfly biology - although I'm not quite sure how this particular insect is the optimal housing for

:: image via Clean Air Through Green Roofs

:: images via Arch Daily

I think it's best put on Inhabitat, as a utopian superstructure, which as I mentioned is fine fodder for the vision, but needs a bit of grounding in some form of reality. So there is some valid research that proves, in theory, that the foundations of vertical farming are solid. It seems, to pardon the puns, that we continue to look for a chicken prior to the egg, and firmly put the cart before the horse in the visualization of schemes with little reality to back them up. One good example of this technology in action, even a somewhat homely and utilitarian one, to prove the technology and cost-effectiveness is all I'm asking for.

In response to the Dragonfly and many of the other over-glamourized examples, I offer some reality (let's call it literally grounded) from Vulgare, by artist Helmut Dick, for an installation entitled 'Lettuce Field as Big as a Skyscraper Building': "10,000 lettuces were grown right beside a sky scraper, on a 1200m² field which is as big as the fa├žade of the building. After a growing period of 5 weeks the salad heads were ready for harvest. These were given to the local inhabitants during the one week harvest period." Call it the anti-vertical farm...

:: images via Vulgare

It's a Quantity Thing...

It's interesting to see the yardstick in which trends are measured... in the case of green roofs, it's pretty easy to add up square footage and declare a winner. A recent post on Land8Lounge showed the annual sizing up of metropolitan areas in North America... and impressive listing for sure with a total of over 3 million square feet installed in one year.

:: image via Land8Lounge

Top Ten Metropolitan Area – Green Roof Square Footage Installed, 2008
City, State - Square Footage (source: Green Roofs for Healthy Cities)

:: Chicago, Illinois - 534,507
:: Washington D.C. - 501,042
:: New York, New York - 358,986
:: Vancouver, British Columbia - 320,000
:: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - 196,820
:: Baltimore, Maryland - 150,032
:: Montreal, Quebec - 75,700
:: Grand Rapids, Michigan - 74,784
:: Princeton, New Jersey - 56,250
:: Newtown Square, Pennsylvania - 48,130

Now I'm pretty sure that Portland had more than 10th place Newtown Square, with a bit over an acre... so curious to see who dropped the ball at the City of Portland on this reporting. Not that it matters, in size war, Portland will never be the leader for square footage, with our minimalist 200' square blocks and our smaller economy - but with the rapid growth and bountiful incentives, it's actually somewhat embarrassing to see the city absent from this list. I'll do some digging and see where we did end up in the 2008 tally.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Illustrating the Urban Condition

From a representational point-of-view, it is interesting to see some of the ways in which representation plays a vital role in communication. I'll inevitably revisit this some more, as it's a topic worth exploring, but these examples span the photographic to the planimetric, while encapsulating a wide range of messages. To begin, it's always interesting to see the popularity of documenting the urban conditions ala Alex Maclean - through semi-oblique aerial photography. His work stands on it's own, as well as illustrating some great books like 'Drosscape' and 'Reclaiming the American West' and the idea of this form shows up often as a method for exploration of the territory between eye level and satellite aerial...

:: Honolulu Area - photography by Alex Maclean - image via anArchitecture

This method is become more popular - with a plane rental and some good camera work being the necessary ingredients... often more informational than artistic - this method offers an additional view of the world that provides something lacking in the true plan-representational aerial that is useful in planning. This is found in many sources, including amongst others, the views of the LA River in The Infrastructural City, as well as another great urban typology - that of 'A Vocabulary of Sprawl' from The Infrastructurist.

:: Ground Cover - image via The Infrastructurist

:: The Alligator - image via The Infrastructurist

The traditional aerial photograph is still a great tool for many uses - either as a base map or a deeper analysis of land use. The accessibility of google earth and other high-resolution, easy to navigate sources is still used daily in our practice - and a hell of a lot easier than going to get blueprints of the mylars down at the city offices... A great example from Emergent Urbanism shows the figure-ground and 'wasted' space in our American gridded cartesian landscape: "Notice how much negative space is created by the imposition of the grid on a chaotic reality. The simplicity of the cartesian plan is deceptive. It generates complications as the random process of change unfolds."

:: image via Emergent Urbanism

The ability to utilize a temporal series of traditional aerial photographs, such as this view of Las Vegas over the past 25 years (via Archidose)... offers another added value of the urban form and growth (or sprawl in this case)... ""These images of the western portion of the Las Vegas metropolitan area show the city’s steady spread into the adjacent desert landscape. Undeveloped land appears along the left edges of the top two images. Here, the land on the city’s outskirts appears in shades of beige and tan, with just a hint of the street grid to come. By 1989, however, development filled the upper left corner—a residential area, complete with curving roads and semicircle streets. In subsequent images, development spreads southward, and by 2004, the entire image shows cityscape, including Interstate 215 passing through southwestern portion of the city."

:: image via Archidose

The plan offers a somewhat quantifiable planning tool, as seen in the installation 49 Cities by Work AC - which delves into the 'future' of some of the most vivid and unrealized utopian proposals from over the years, such as Corbu's Villa Radieuse and Koolhaas' Exodus Plan for London (seen below): Via Arch Daily: "49 Cities sets out to crunch the numbers of several centuries of unrealized urbanism, all the way from the Roman city to the great utopian projects of the 20th century. Through plans, sections, diagrams, charts and scale drawings, 49 cities are observed statistically and presented in an unprecedented comparative study, the result of a research project conducted over several years. Despite the fact that they never actually existed, this history of utopian urbanism provides a remarkable insight into our understanding of the contemporary metropolis."

:: image via Arch Daily
The illustrative quality is definitely captured in the sketchy planning maps - reminiscent of the on-the-fly analysis of Kevin Lynch and his Image of the City - outlining landmarks, nodes, paths, edges, and so on. These maps by Guy Debord, seen via Vulgare, show a number of interesting ideas of analysis for Paris...

:: images via Vulgare

A similar investigation spotted on the Portland Architecture blog reminded me of how evocative a selective display of information can be. In this case, a diagram showing a selected dataset, including major roadways, nodes, and parks - with the interstitial spaces being left blank as sort of an ambiguous filler... it's very much a representation of the fabric of Portland, neatly captured in a simple diagram.

To the other extreme, there is the visually dense drawings of one of my favorites, Lebbeus Woods or in this case, a reference to Paul Rudolph's illustrative technique, via "Despite a number of monographs, including the mammoth Paul Rudolph: Architectural Drawings with its terrifyingly detailed, Piranesi-esque images, Paul Rudolph’s architecture is not easy to fully comprehend. Paradoxically, it could be argued that precisely because of the unsparingly detailed drawings of complex plans and sections, the tendency is to be overwhelmed rather than enlightened. Rudolph’s architecture is as densely “architectural” as it comes."

:: image via
The interesting thing is there isn't any 'right' way of communicating data and ideas, but there are many rules that offer some much needed guidance for legibility, orientation, and scale. Always a cartophile, a recent link via cityofsound to a fabulous blog called Making Maps: DIY Cartography, offered some wisdom of one of my favorites, Edward Tufte, towards the making of maps in this 2007 post entitled 'How Useful is Tufte for Making Maps?'. Read it all, then read/absorb Tufte, it's wonderful.