Archive for June, 2008


Desertification in China

Desertification in China. Image by Benoit Aquin.

Today, some additional facts about water, or its absence. As an opening frame of reference, it takes 150 gallons of water to make a loaf of our daily bread.

The North China Plain is a desert, some of which is natural but much of which is man made. Herders and farmers in this region have managed to turn more than 110,000 square kilometers here into desert since 1950. During one dust storm in 2006 (there were 17 that year) 300,000 tons of dust were deposited in Beijing in one night. Often the dust from this desert reaches the west coast of North America.

Desertification in China. Image by Benoit Aquin.

Beneath the North China Plain is a shallow aquifer. The water there is more than 1,000 feet deep, and it’s sufficiently depleted that irrigation is no longer economically viable for agriculture.

China dust

A dust storm in China. Image by Benoit Aquin.

Nearer to Beijing, wells are often drilled more than half a mile to find water. Water use there is expected to surge 30% this summer because of the Olympics. As a result, farmers in the region have been instructed to grow corn rather than rice – corn requires less water.

In China’s Qinhai Province there were once 4,077 lakes. In the last 20 years, more than 2,000 have disappeared. In Hebei Province, surrounding Beijing, 969 of the regions 1,052 lakes are now gone. And in Africa, Lake Chad, once a landmark for astronauts in space, is just about gone.

Lake Chad

Lake Chad, in 1972, and 15 years later in 1987. Almost gone.

And the water situation is even worse in India. Here ends today’s lesson.

China dust

Dust, China. Image by Benoit Aquin.

Footnote: Go out and buy this book immediately: “Plan B 3.0, Mobilizing to Save Civilization,” by Dr. Lester Brown, published by Norton Press. It will scare the daylights out of you, but it offers some hope.

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Scenic Hancock, Maryland

 Scenic Hancock, Maryland

Gasoline in our region is running about $4.25/gallon at the moment. Every day the Post is filled with stories about rising oil prices and the resulting affect on all kinds of things: food; UPS and FedEx and the shipping business; the hospitality industry and dwindling numbers of travelers; the failing airlines; and a million other twitches. The notion that we have reached peak oil production, that we must now conserve, buy smaller cars, use public transit, ride a bike to work – all of these are becoming widely understood as required changes to our lives. Economic pressures are seeing to that.

Good. Really, really late, but good. As non-car people, we here root for rising prices every day, since apparently it is only this that spurs us to action. Wait until the price of gasoline doubles – this will force even more sweeping realizations, and I hope actions to change our lives, and our cities.

So as we think about the infrastructure we need in order to make these changes, rising gas prices suggest that we build many fewer roads, much less parking, much more transit, no more strip shopping centers. Much of this has been widely discussed here.

But many scientists agree that there is one precious resource that will require even greater changes in our cities and our lives as it becomes more and more scarce, a resource that most of us take for granted, and waste, every day. Water.

The Nile in Cairo

The Nile, in Cairo.

As I have been thinking about infrastructure for the next city, I have repeatedly bumped up against scientific evidence about the massive water problems that we earthlings now face, and will increasingly struggle with in the next several decades. Some of the research comes to some pretty terrifying conclusions.  As the National Geographic reminded us 15 years ago, “All the water that will ever be is, right now.”

Consider a few facts:

  • it takes 4,800 gallons of water to make a pound of coffee
  • it takes 2,500 gallons of water to make a hamburger
  • the average American bathtub holds about 90 gallons of water
  • in the last century, as the earth’s population has tripled, water useage has risen sixfold
  • by 2025, 75% of the earth’s population will face some degree of water scarcity (scarcity = water use exceeding sustainable limits)
  • 2.8 billion people – 40% of the world population – live today in water sheds or basins with some scarcity

This, and much more, I have gleaned from the Worldwatch Institute’s “State of the World 2008” report, which I suggest you go out and find today, along with Lester Brown’s (he founded Worldwatch, and now heads the Earth Policy Institute) “Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.”

There are lots of technologies, lots of ways to conserve and recycle water, and more are being developed every day. So there are techniques, things that we can do in conserving water and treating waste, that could really help in agriculture (70% of world water usage), industry (20% of world water usage, and domestic consumption (10% of world water usage).

Will we fight wars over water as we have fought wars over oil? Water rights have already started wars, and it seems likely this will continue, or escalate, before the infrastructure is in place to equitably distribute and treat water resources. Here is a good quote from “The State of the World 2008”:

“Managing water as an economic good is an important way of achieving efficient and equitable use, and of encouraging conservation and protection of water resources.”

The real question that has been bugging me is this: what will it take to get us to address water issues as we are just now beginning to seriously tackle oil issues? Would it help if your shower tomorrow morning cost $4.00 a gallon? Would you want to find some of those conservation and treatment options right away, and revise the infrastructure of the next city? Seems like a sure thing.


At sea

At sea.

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1909 Plan of Chicago

From the 1909 Plan of Chicago, a view by Jules Guerin.

I really do want to get back to exploring some issues related to urban infrastructure and the next city, but I keep getting distracted by wacky news items.

As most of you know, Chicago celebrates the centennial of the 1909 Plan of Chicago next year, and the City is planning a whole host of events, celebrations, conversations and exhibitions to mark the date, look back to a critical moment in the life of Chicago, and look forward to meeting the challenges the City faces in the future. I am worried that this will be more laudatory and celebratory than challenging, provocative or useful, but I am hopeful that some good things will happen.

But less hopeful today than yesterday. This morning I learned that a cabal of Chicagons – many of them friends! – have decided to invite starchitects Zaha Hadid (London) and Ben van Berkel (Amsterdam) to design temporary pavilions in Millennium Park for the celebration. 

                 Zaha Hadid\'s subway station in Innsbruck   Mercedes Museum by UNStudio

Zaha Hadid’s Innsbruck subway station;  Ben van Berkel’s (UNStudio) Mercedes Museum

Now mind you, I’m not cranky that they did not invite Chicagoans, though I do recall much text in the 1909 Plan that talked about urban patriotism, which should have at least given them pause. But so be it. It’s a grand celebration.

What bothers me is the fear that making a statement may well be more important to these Chicagoans than what gets said.  They go and hire the flashiest celebrities they can find – will they get style or substance in return? In this age when personal expression seems to valued above any kind of civility, this could be dangerous stuff.

I hope Chicago gets more for its money than the architectural equivalent of loud blabbering on some jerk’s cell phone: a lot of noise, and who cares, anyway?

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Linked Hybrid,  Beijing

Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid in Beijing. Image from flickr.

Stephanie Busari of CNN in London wrote today to offer a link to the CNN International article she wrote about Beijing. Take a look. It’s nice to have been able to give her our perspective.


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After writing about the New York Times articles of June 8th in the last two posts, I was contacted by a young woman in London who writes for CNN. She is doing a piece on Steven Holl’s ‘Linked Hybrid’ (LH) development in Beijing, shown below. She wanted me to chat with her about the project.

During our exchange of emails, she asked me for some additional thoughts about the development, which I was happy to offer. And then came the punchline – she had contacted Mr. Holl, and asked him if he thought his LH had “isolationist overtones.” Mr Holl replied that LH was “no more isolationist than Greenwich Village.”


This reply was a bit astonishing to me. Now I will let you be the judge. Take a look at this (taken at almost precisely the same altitude) thanks to Google Earth:


Beijing Aerial - Linked Hybrid

Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid in construction, Beijing. Image from Google Earth.


Greenwich Village aerial

 Greenwich Village. Image from Google Earth.

Interesting, yes?


I looked at these images and found myself recalling a wonderful quote from Alain de Botton’s “The Architecture of Happiness.”  


“The great modern houses are happy to admit to their youth and honestly to benefit from the advances of contemporary materials, but they also know how to respond to the appealing themes of their ancestry and can thereby heal the traumas generated by an era of brutally rapid change. Without patronizing the history they profess to love, they show us how we, too, might carry the valuable parts of the past and the local into a restless global future.”


Well said. Worth keeping in mind as Beijing, and all other next cities, unfold with breathtaking speed.


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Steven Holl\'s \'Linked Hybrid,\' in Beijing

Steven Holl’s ‘Linked Hybrid’ project, in Beijing, just 2.5 miles from the extraordinary Forbidden City. Image from flickr.

I continue to muse about the New York Times Magazine’s recent architecture issue entitled “The Next City.” In the feature piece, “The New, New City,” architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff talks about the dazzling speed and scale of redevelopment in places like Shenzhen or Beijing or Dubai, and suggests that building cities, big cities, from scratch in three or four decades, is without precedent. (What about my home town, Chicago, where the population increased more than tenfold in 40 years?). He suggests that the size and chaos of these places robs architects and urbanists of any intelligible starting point for designing the new. Well maybe, and maybe not.

I will give Ouroussoff one point: contemporary development in Beijing and Shenzhen and Dubai is really awful. Unfortunately, some of the examples he touts as models for the future, as exceedingly ‘innovative,’ as benchmarks of new 21st century urbanism, are among the most significant failures.

These cities are all becoming manic expressions of fundamentally defective ideas about how to make urbanism. Some are architectural petting zoos, some are designer-label crazy, some are crazy quilts of new construction, each walled and isolated from the larger fabric of the place. Some are quickly filling up with construction that most resembles the worst of 20th century American urban renewal, and of course they are all filled to the brim with cars. At a time when beautiful and humanely designed cities may represent some hope for the future, these places look pretty hopeless.

Instead of writing breathlessly about how the starchitects are ‘innovating’ by creating architecture that does nothing to add to the common well being of a place, Ouroussoff should be talking about the basics in urbanism, reminding city designers, leaders, and developers to remember what, in the end, makes any city a great city. The street, the block. This is the place to start building the new.

First, last and always, great places, great cities, begin with great public domains, and in particular with their streets. We all own the street: it is the place where we all belong, where we can move and linger, where we can erect monuments to tell our stories, where we can sit and watch our neighbors, or sit and sip and read the news of the day.

Steven Holl\'s \'Linked Hybrid\' development in Beijing

Steven Holl’s city streets, 20 stories above, in Beijing. Image from flickr.

Whether in grids, as in so many American cities, or in meandering knots of non-linear pathways, all cities must begin with their public realms, their streets. Streets make blocks, and blocks are where buildings go. Simple.

In the 1950s and 1960s we experimented with what was then called the superblock, and especially in the planning and construction of subsidized housing. Now that we have thankfully torn most of this down, we can say we’ve learned a lesson – streets at the fine grained scale of small blocks make the best cities. Steven Holl’s ‘Linked Hybrid’ project, and so many other new developments in Beijing and elsewhere, are, sadly, superblock designs. 

And this, in Beijing, which has a fascinating pattern of layers of streets and blocks. In the central city, there is a grid of major streets that is very large – say 2,500 feet wide (east to west) and well over 3,000 feet long north to south. Then, interior to this large block is a fine grain of minor streets and passageways, with most streets running east and west, and passages, or even narrower streets, running north and south. This secondary, and finer, layer of streets breaks the city into manageable, walkable blocks.

Go to Google Earth and take a look at Beijing. The damage is everywhere in evidence – huge superblock developments are the pattern of choice for almost all that’s new. But the starting points of a fine grained urbanism – the street, the block – are still there to act as inspiration.

Seems to me like a good place to start.

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Shenzhen, China

Shenzhen, China. Image by Sze Tsung Leong for the New York Times.

This past weekend the New York Times Magazine was devoted to architecture and urban design, and the issue was entitled “The Next City.” I was crestfallen to see that the title of our project here had been scooped up. I was certain that we had been rendered obsolete – surely the NYT would get great journalists to talk about all of the issues facing the next city, and they would do so in a provocative and insightful way. They would spend time, and column inches, talking about making cities, even new and exploding cities in the developing world, sustainable and green and fit for their burgeoning populations. I was really bummed.

Until I read the magazine. At first I was puzzled, and then, as I began to reflect on what I had read, I started to get angry. Really angry.

The cities we live in, whether east or west, whether giant and new, or older and suffused with history, are simply not sustainable. We must address this, in all of its complexity, and we must do this now. We are burning through the earth’s resources at a breathtaking rate, (especially we Americans), and as population increases, and the east develops so very quickly, it is absolutely clear that we are on a path to cataclysm. Does the NYTM’s Next City talk about any of this? Shamefully, it does not.

Half the world’s population now lives in cities. By 2050, most scientists (and the NYTM) tell us that 75% of the population will live in cities. Clearly, cities are the best laboratory for searching for, and we hope finding, the best next forms of habitation, piece by piece, neighborhood by neighborhood.

So what do we get from the NYTM? Starchitects. Celebrities. A highbrow version of Access Hollywood. Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Bernard Tschumi, Herzog & de Meuron and many more. What a waste of paper and pixels!

Nicolai Ouroussoff, the NYT’s architecture critic, writes the most dazzlingly, stupefyingly wrongheaded piece of all, entitled “The New, New City.” He investigates exploding cities like Shenzhen, Dubai, Beijing, cities without precedent of any kind, he says, and he muses about what approach poor architects like Holl and Koolhaas should take when they are working at huge scale and blazing speed. Where shall they go for inspiration, guidance, context in these placeless voids where they are work? He says: “…the notion of finding “authenticity” in a sprawling metropolitan area that is barely 30 years old seems absurd.” Oh? 

(Think of this: as America urbanized in the 19th century, the national population doubled, from 38.6 million in 1870 to 76.2 million in 1900, and from 25.7% urban to 39.6% urban. U.S. cities went from inchoate miasmas to real urban centers in this 30 year period).

Get rid of the cars, figure out which way the wind is blowing, track the sun, gather the water, make shelter from the heat, or cold. Start there. Make buildings, and urbanisms, that find their basic humanity in trying to create the gentlest and most sustainable places imaginable. Shaded places, sheltering places. Stop talking about modernism (mentioned five times in the piece) and modernists and the Voisin Plan and Corbusier. This is now nearly completely irrelevant. 

Ouroussoff never uses any of the following words: green, sustainable, sustainability, environment, energy, climate, sun, wind, rain, community. The New York Times is irresponsible in letting this drivel reach its hundreds of thousands of readers. Get rid of this guy, and stop talking about architecture and urbanism as if it were fashion. There’s too much at stake. 

Linked Hybrid

Steven Holl’s “Linked Hybrid,” under construction in Beijing. Ouroussoff says: “…one of the most innovative housing complexes anywhere in the world.” Image by Virgile Simon Bertrand.

If Holl’s Beijing project is leading the way, I don’t want to go. As a long time Chicagoan, the Linked Hybrid image reminded me of Presidential Towers, in that city’s West Loop. You can look it up. Not reviled exactly, but certainly not a path to the Beulah land. (Amy says Presidential Towers looks like the Dakota compared to Holl’s ‘Linked Hybrid.’).

But don’t get me wrong – there were a couple of nice pieces in the New York Times Magazine. Jim Lewis wrote a very strong piece entitled “The Exigent City,” which examines ‘temporary’ cities, refugee camps, and displacement. He points out that increasingly, refugee camps are less and less temporary. And he concludes that, at the moment, “The world is short a billion homes.”  And he actually uses the word ‘green.’

An interview with Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia has a great quote: “A sidewalk is a symbol of equality.” He got cars off the sidewalks in Bogota, and built more sidewalks, and nearly paid for it with his life. Go figure.

An interesting article about the Dutch practice called MVRDV. They (MVRDV) get what really counts in making cities, even though the article seems a bit too interested in their starpower and their relationship with Brad Pitt. Oh well.

And an interesting piece about yet another trendy practice, Lot-Ek (low-tech), a NYC based practice run by two Neapolitans who are interested in making buildings, and urbanism, from found objects. Their Urban Scan, a database of the industrial and the found in the landscape, is really terrific.

In the end, I wish that the NYTM had taken the time to seriously look at the challenges facing the Next City, and I guess I could live with being scooped. No matter what I do, I will never have a million readers. They do every week. They could help to advance the discussion about future urbanism and the next city, but this time they really, really failed.

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