Archive for July, 2008

Wrapped Gas Pump, by a Syracuse MFA student. Photo from Flickr.

In the Post this morning, in an article on the front page of the Business section, in an item describing yesterday’s stock market gains, we find the following:

“Driving yesterday’s gains was yet another drop in oil prices, which tumbled to their lowest level in seven weeks. A barrel of light, sweet crude on the New York Mercantile Exchange fell $2.54, to $122.19.”

“Every time the price of oil takes a dive, the market surges,” said Ed Yardeni, chief investment strategist for Yardeni Research. “Investors are becoming increasingly confident that we may have well seen the peak in crude oil prices.”

Think so?

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Image created by Ilya Katz.

In the Metro the other day I saw a statistic that really caught my attention: Americans consume 38 billion plastic bottles of water a year, produced from 3 billion tons of plastic. Ugh. Can we go turn on the tap, please?!? Buy a Brita if you’re worried, but enough with the bottled water already! (It takes 450 years for one of those plastic bottles to biodegrade).

Naturally enough, this got me to snooping around on this swampy, rainy Sunday afternoon. I found a few things that helped underscore that we really need to rethink our patterns of consumption.

From the U.N. Development Programme comes this:

“Globally, the 20% of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures.” (1.3 billion of the planet’s 6.6 billion people consume 86% of everything).

The UNDP then offers the following statistics: this 20% consumes 45% of all meat and fish, 58% of all energy, 84% of all paper, and owns 87% of all vehicles.

Not so good.

And while I was scanning statistics, here’s another one that caught my eye: in terms of passenger rail use, the U.S. ranks 73rd in the world.

Our work stands before us.

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Nightfall in the Qianmen hutong, Beijing. Image by Ruth Fremson, New York Times.

I was reminded again the other day of the muddle-headed New York Times article I have complained about here on several occasions. In that piece (the June 8th NYT Magazine), “The New, New City,” writer Nicolai Ouroussoff says, of exploding city development in China or the Middle East: “Yet the notion of finding “authenticity” in a sprawling metropolitan area that is barely 30 years old seems absurd. How do you breathe life into a project at such scale? How do you instill the fine-grained texture of a healthy community into one that rose overnight?” Could there be a more wrong-headed statement about making/remaking cities, especially great cities like Beijing?

I hope that someone will give Mr. Ouroussoff a copy of the July issue of Architectural Record. In it, Michael Sorkin, a contributing editor of the magazine and Professor of Architecture and Director of the graduate urban design program at New York’s City College (CUNY), has written a truly wonderful essay about learning from the hutong (traditional alleys and streets, lined with siheyuan, one story courtyard houses) of Beijing, and what they might teach those who are remaking that city, badly, at the speed of light. Here are some excerpts. Access the full article below.

“The Chinese have a longstanding genius for domestic architecture, and a visit to the hutong of Beijing – the fast disappearing neighborhoods of courtyard houses, laced with small lanes and commerce, sanctuaries of both intimacy and variety in the midst of a city too rapidly doing away with the best of its public character – affirms the singularity and brilliance of their historic achievement. Such places offer an alternative to the Modernist constructs that shape the city today and provide an irreplaceable element in the urban repertoire that demands not simply to be conserved but extended.”

“Although the architectural types that make up the hutong of Beijing differ from the lilong of Shanghai, the genius of their organization is similar. Low, tight, and intimate, they are wonderful neighborhoods, tractable on foot, intimate, and diverse. Indeed, so singular, delightful, and increasingly rare are these places, that many are enjoying (or suffering) the fate of gentrification. On my recent visit, I went house shopping with a Chinese colleague who hoped to find a congenial situation in one of the better hutong, but the prices were at Manhattan levels. The market may be cruel, but it’s not stupid.”

A siheyuan in Beijing. Image from Flickr.

“To lament the disappearance of these tight-grained communities has become something of a bromide, and the issue of saving such endangered places is hardly foreign to the Chinese. The mistake, however, is to reduce the question simply to one of preservation, to see these forms as an unrepeatable historic condition. As we all confront the need to create radically more sustainable forms of urbanism and restore the morphological basis for communities worldwide, we have a lot to learn from the lilong and hutong of China.”

Excellently said. For the whole article, go to:


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Some recent work. Many thanks to sister, and artist, Bonnie Hull for encouraging some new thinking. More on the work table – stay tuned. The little painting below was a study for the bigger guy, above.

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Seattle abuzz with new construction

Back from an interesting trip to the upper left hand corner of the U.S.: Seattle, Portland, Salem, and the Oregon Coast. A great time with family, and a good time reconnecting with these cities and places.

In Seattle, we rode the new South Lake Union Streetcar. Unfortunately, the streetcar was known as a trolley during all of the planning leading up to its construction, so now, of course, it’s called the S.L.U.T. Tee shirts are available.

The S.L.U.T. alignment

The trolley doesn’t run far, yet – about 20 blocks north, then 20 blocks back south – but it represents a powerful tool as Seattle (and all cities) begins to chuck the car.  We were last in Seattle four years ago, and barely recognized the place this time for all the new, and very dense, construction. The South Lake Union neighborhood is taking shape, after decades of planning, on land that was mostly one story light industrial sites, or surface parking lots. Currently new residential space is retailing at about $350 a square foot. Getting pricey.

In Portland we arrived at Union Station, having taken the very enjoyable Amtrak train from Seattle. Three and a half hours of delightful scenery away from the crushing madness of I-5 traffic. Nice.

Union Station in Portland used to be in an industrial area. Now the Pearl, the new and booming neighborhood in NW Portland, comes right to the tracks as one enters the city. This has happened with blazing speed – we were in Portland a year ago and the station was still high and dry. No longer – it has been swallowed by the neighborhood.

The big story in Portland was the City Council’s consideration of a new vehicular bridge for I-5 over the Columbia. The cost: $4.2 billion. The state DOTs want 12 lanes. The City Council wants 6 lanes, tolls, and lanes for the light rail system, bikers, and pedestrians. Building new highway infrastructure is a fool’s errand in these times, but at least they seem to know this, and are trying to hold some kind of line. We’ll see what happens. 

The existing I-5 bridge at Portland, over the Columbia River.

The proposed 12 lane I-5 bridge – unlikely to matrialize at this scale.

And at the Oregon Coast, near Lincoln City, we found ourselves wondering what will happen to these places – long, linear places along the coastal highway that is Route 101. Jammed with cars and RVs, the highway runs through Lincoln City at a very slow gait. And there’s no way to get there except to drive. Of course in the not-so-old days you could get to Newport, a bit to the south, by train. But no more. Interesting to think about what will happen here as cars no longer work.


Between the Pacific and Route 101, Lincoln City, Oregon.

Back home in DC, the City Council is holding hearings this week on the implementation of our new streetcar. Most opposition has vanished in the face of rising gas prices, but there are still some die-hard opponents moaning about how we should be spending more money on roads and buses and forget streetcars. They note that traffic and congestion have become unbearable here. So lets build more roads and make it even worse!

Hey folks – your car is obsolete. It’s over. Sorry, but the automobile age is done. Come back when somebody perfects a personal vehicle that the planet can live with. 

And our Metro system is already running over capacity. Buses are the most expensive form of urban mass transit, and have the lowest capacity. Build streetcars. In DC they say we can have a good set of alignments by 2030. Hmm. Bet it happens sooner.

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On the Road

Seattle Streetcar

Seattle Streetcar.

Seattle, Portland, Salem, and the Oregon Coast for a terrific week with family. Back the week of the 8th of July. Stay tuned.

Portland Streetcar

Portland Streetcar.

Salem, Oregon streetca

Salem, Oregon Streetcar.

Oregon Coast

Oregon Coast.

More shortly.

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