Category Archives: Review

FROM THE VAULT | Archetypes of Urbanism | Thomas Thiis-Evensen

thiis_evensen_thomas_archetypes_of_urbanismFROM THE VAULT |  Archetypes of Urbanism: a method for the esthetic design of cities by Thomas Thiis-Evensen
by Mark David Major, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

Thomas Thiis-Evensen’s Archetypes of Urbanism: a method for the esthetic design of cities (1996) describes general principles for the design of streets and squares. These principles are derived by developing a typology based on the composition of facade and pavement surfaces in traditional – mainly European – cities. In taking this approach, the book has much in common with Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (1960) and Rob Krier’s Urban Space (1979), both of which are frequently referenced. Interestingly, a less explicit attempt is made to incorporate the phenomenological concerns of theorists such as Christian Norberg-Schulz about ‘the sense of place’ in discussing the usefulness of ‘types’ to designers. At its best, the book sketches out examples of how the composition of facades, detailing of pavements, and varying street widths can be deployed to either accentuate or retard the ‘directionality’ of movement in street spaces. In discussing the design of urban squares, the argument is less convincing and the author merely repeats the call for ‘good enclosure’. It seems likely the author is aware of this as only one chapter is devoted to the design of squares whereas the rest of the book focuses on the urban space of street networks, about which the author’s ideas seem to be more developed. Sadly, Thiis-Evensen’s argument is often undermined by diagrams appearing six or seven pages after they have been referred to in the text; the blame for which clearly resides with the publishers. Archetypes of Urbanism: a method for the esthetic design of cities is most valuable to students in helping them to develop their own ideas about the design of our cities.

thiis_evensen_thomas_archetypes_of_urbanismArchetypes of Urbanism: a method for the esthetic design of cities
by Thomas Thiis-Evensen
228 pages
Oslo, Norway: Universitetsforlaget

You can purchase Archetypes of Urbanism: a method for the esthetic design of cities from Amazon here.

From the Vault is a new series from the Outlaw Urbanist in which we review architectural and urban design texts, with an emphasis on the obscure and forgotten, found in the second-hand bookstore.

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FROM THE VAULT | The Little House | An Architectural Seduction

1568980175.1.zoomFROM THE VAULTThe Little House: An Architectural Seduction
By Jean-François de Bastide (Translated by Rodolphe el-Khoury), Preface by Anthony Vidler

(Review by Mark David Major, Outlaw Urbanist contributor) Though based on a 19th century publication, The Little House: An Architectural Seduction is, in fact, an 18th century French text, Le Petite Maison by Jean-François de Bastide. As Anthony Vidler points out in the preface, it is a peculiar French attempt to synthesize two disparate literary genres, which was quite common at the time (and still frequently occurs today to varying degrees, think of recent attempts combining juvenile romance with erotic horror in fiction titles such as Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, or Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies). In the case of The Little House, it is the genres of the erotic romance and architectural treatise, which are synthesized by Bastide. The architectural treatise portion is beautifully composed of meticulous drawings of plans, elevations, and interior design details of the Marquis de Tremicour’s petite maison, which is visited on a dare by the virtuous Mélite. Much of the text is given over to descriptions of Tremicour’s collected objects displayed in the house. The design of the little house itself is strongly reminiscent of 16th century Palladian villas, which were also frequently used as display settings for wealthy collections of art, tapestries, inventive domestic wonders and what not rather than actual homes (the nearest American equivalent would be Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello though Jefferson’s home was also a fully-functional farmstead). The romance portion of the story details Tremicour’s attempts to use his petite maison and its collection of expensive objects to seduce Mélite.

Despite Vidler’s heavily-jargon-weighed efforts to convince readers to assume a French Libertine perspective (an “alien culture”, according Vidler) in reading the text, The Little House actually reads like an appraisal of Tremicour’s worth as measured in his financial outlay on the house and the objects contained with; in this case, worth is a measure of taste that can be purchased. Vidler argues taste in the 18th century French sense is actually an aspect of touch (both literally and metaphorically, how we are physical and emotionally ‘touched’ by a person or thing). Vidler’s argument is not entirely convincing and it’s easy to wonder how the reader might react differently to the text in the absence of Vidler’s prefatory comments. Mélite’s conflicted feelings about Tremicour during her visit emerge, on one hand, from her distaste of the man and his reputation and, on the other, her appreciation of the liberating nature of his wealth in enabling him to obtain the best of things. This serves as an interesting contrast to Mélite, who is explicitly stated to have earned her taste through learning and experience (her age and wealth status are not mentioned though it’s safe to assume she is not a child and comes from a well-to-do French family). This seems to make Mélite’s dogged resistance to Tremicour’s (sometime clumsy) attempts at sexual seduction into a nature-nurture didactic whereby nature (one who is born with taste, i.e. Mélite) overcomes nurture (one who has purchased taste, i.e. Tremicour). Tremicour does have something of a nouveau riche quality about him, despite his title. However, this possible reading of the text is undercut by a revision to the ending of The Little House. According to el-Khoury’s notes, Mélite succeeded in her efforts to resist Tremicour’s attempted seduction in his petite maison and she retired to the country to recover from the ordeal in Bastide’s original ending. el-Khoury is unclear if Bastide himself changed the ending (i.e. original ending was in draft form) or if the translator has changed the ending using a 20th century perspective. Thus, The Little House ends with a threat, Mélite’s last words being “Tremicour, leave me! I do not want…”, and then brief acknowledgement of Tremicour’s success in seducing the virtuous girl. This revision is disturbing because it changes the tale from an architectural seduction into a libertine rape. The Little House thereby reasserts the purview of the masculine (of Tremicour, perhaps of the male contributors to this modern translation) over the feminine (of Mélite) in architecture and Mélite becomes, metaphorically-speaking, only another object to be collected. It is possible this review is skewed with a distinctive 21st century perspective about women but no matter how much some of us may wish to be a French Libertine, we are not.

1568980175.1.zoomThe Little House: An Architectural Seduction
By Jean-François de Bastide (Translated by Rodolphe el-Khoury)
Preface by Anthony Vidler
Originally published as Le Petite Maison, 1879
Princeton Architectural Press, 1996
116 pages

Available for purchase from Amazon here.

From the Vault is a new series from the Outlaw Urbanist in which we review architectural and urban design texts, with an emphasis on the obscure and forgotten, found in the second-hand bookstore.

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Think Different, Be “Insanely Great” | REVIEW | Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Steve-JobsThink Different, Be “Insanely Great”
REVIEW of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

by Mark David Major, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am writing this review on my MacBook Pro with Retina Display with my iPhone and iPad Mini sitting near at hand while I listen to a shuffle of classical music in my iTunes Library. When I started writing this disclosure paragraph, I noticed my apps were syncing to all of my devices via iCloud, which finished well before I had completed this paragraph. I have been an unapologetic member of the Apple Cult since 1993.

A few times in Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, the biographer and his subject admit there will be a lot that Jobs won’t like in this authorized biography. Once again, Steve Jobs was right. Isaacson’s biography is not a great product. The writing is often repetitive, even diverging into triviality on occasion, with the biographer/interviewees (except Jobs himself) all too eager to engage in ‘Dime Store’ Freudian psychoanalysis about the book’s subject. At 656 pages, Isaacson’s biography would have benefited from the same zeal for simplicity and minimalism (in terms of editing) that characterized so many of Apple’s products during Jobs’ two tenures at the company. In fact, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson reads like Simon & Schuster rushed the book to market months ahead of schedule so it could financially capitalize on Jobs’ death in late 2011. The release date is a mere two weeks after Jobs death on October 5, 2011. This is something Jobs would have never tolerated while he was alive. Isaacson’s biography is not a bad book but it could have been “insanely great” like its subject. There are many useful, some wonderful insights (usually originating from Jobs himself) contained within, so it is well worth your time to read. In the end, what shines through in the book, despite its problems, is the genius and greatness of Steve Jobs.

Isaacson’s fairly ridiculous thesis is Jobs was driven to greatness by a desire to prove his natural parents were wrong to put him up for adoption, which begs the question why there aren’t more industry leaders with adoptive parents. Jobs is fairly dismissive of this line of thought. Isaacson’s equally ridiculous aim is to get his subject to admit, “He is an asshole.” We are all angels and assholes (some, more one than other). It is called being human so it’s unclear why this is important. Jobs was a perfectionist but he never (thankfully) claimed he was perfect. Many of Jobs management techniques are tried, tested and effective even if Jobs’ form of brutal honesty lacked a ‘politeness’ filter. Anyone successful, who has been in a leadership position, will recognize these techniques.

Isaacson devotes a considerable amount of words to Jobs’ tendency to construct a “reality distortion field”, an ability to weld or ignore reality to his wishes but also compel designers and engineers to do the seemingly impossible. We all construct “reality distortion fields” in an attempt to warp reality to our wishes. Some are more successful and ambitious at it than others. It is unclear why Isaacson finds this distinctive human trait so compelling other than the fact Jobs changed the reality of the way things work in this world. The fact is there are many people in the world, who simply cannot abide greatness in their presence. They seek to bring genius down to their level, a sort of “stupidity distortion field.” Jobs would describe this as Grade C people bringing down the Grade A people around them to the average, “the ugly”, or the “totally shit”. Isaacson could easily devote an entire book to how otherwise seemingly intelligent people (like Bill Gates, who comes across as a decent and pleasant schmuck but a schmuck nonetheless) adopt stupid arguments, decisions, and positions to distort the greatness or genius of individuals around them. The fact is there are more like Steve Jobs out there but the herd is too busy trampling them under foot to recognize them. In the end, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is best when all aspects of Jobs (the good and the bad) filter through the biographer’s gaze. Was Steve Jobs perfect? No, he was human. Personally, I never asked for Apple products to be perfect. I only asked that Apple products be the best in the world and, usually, they were. I never asked Steve Jobs to be anything than what he was: a brilliant businessman, an insight artist, and a (sometimes) source and (often) shepherd of technological innovation. In the end, what was remarkable about Steve Jobs was not that he changed the world but he changed the world in the face of the ‘conventional wisdom’, which is often polite code for the stupidity of the consensus. Frankly, I prefer to live in Jobs’ reality. Along the way, he lived a remarkable life. Surely, that is enough. The world seems smaller without Steve Jobs in it. We have Jobs’ Apple to thank for it but it is also a testament to the legacy of Steve Jobs. He will be missed.

I’m attaching video links to a couple of seminal moments in the life of Steve Jobs. First, the famous 1984 MacIntosh commercial, directed by Ridley Scott, which aired during the Super Bowl (above in the body of the review). Many in the trade (including TV Guide) say it is the greatest commercial ever. Second, is the famous commencement address Jobs gave at Stanford University in 2005 (see below). Remember: think different.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster
Hardcover, 656 pages
Available from Amazon here.

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A fanciful city | REVIEW | American Urban Form: A Representative History

AmUrFormA fanciful city | REVIEW | American Urban Form: A Representative History
By Mark David Major, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

How do you solve a problem like ‘the City’? This is the generic name Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore give to their “hypothetical city” in American Urban Form: A Representative History, available from MIT Press (176 pages; $20.71 on Amazon). Warner and Whittemore’s City is a narrative conglomeration of urban history, for the most part, in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia (New Philaton?) and, therein, lies several dilemmas. The book’s subtitle describes this as “a representative history.” Outside of academia, this is more commonly called historical fiction. It is uncertain the authors’ admirable honesty in admitting this fact (albeit, using academic language) is enough to transform a historical fiction into a substantive scholarly work. All good historical fiction writers conduct research into their subject but tend to not provide footnotes and bibliography (as Bass and Whittemore do). This information is incidental to the goal of telling a good story. So, do we approach American Urban Form as a well-referenced historical fiction or a scholarly work adopting an intriguing (perhaps even innovative) methodological approach to urban history? In the end, it doesn’t really matter.

American Urban Form is more curiosity than ground breaking as a scholarly work. Despite the bold, important title of the book, its publisher, and the authors’ claim “the book is about patterns, the physical patterns or urban form that we can observe in American big cities past and present” and “physical patterns shape and are themselves shaped by” political, social and economic factors, it only discusses urban form incidentally in relation to those factors. In doing so, the authors adopt an a-spatial perspective when discussing the generators of American urban form, which is revealed by their use of the word ‘reflect’ in several instances. We have to believe this word choice is intentional. In this sense, American Urban Form comfortably sits within the prevailing planning paradigm of the post-war period in the United States (see M. Christine Boyer’s Dreaming the Rational City: The Myth of American City Planning for an excellent and detailed discussion on this topic). Unfortunately, it is also consistent with a recent, unfortunate trend in planning theory to claim to discuss one thing (physical form and space) but substantively reinforce prevailing thought (an a-spatial perspective of the city). Even when American Urban Form does discuss the physical fabric of ‘the City’, it tends to become trapped in discussing architectural styles.

Boston, New York, and Philadelphia seem a stylistic choice for the narrative since they have common temporal and geographical origins, and builds on the foundation of Warner’s previous research into the real history of these cities. It also allows the authors to avoid the emergent effects of 1785 Land Ordinance in generating American urban form (based on the authors’ own timeline, their use of the phrase “Jefferson grid” refers to the regular grid in general, in which case it is more accurately described as the Renaissance grid or even the Spanish grid). In selecting these cities, American Urban Form also reinforces what many see as an ‘East Coast bias’ in urban planning. This is not exactly right. It is actually a ‘Bi-Coastal bias’, which is consistent with a larger cultural bias in the United States. In a real way, there is an ‘axis of planning’ in the United States that stretches from the cabals of MIT to the Ivy League schools to the West Coast (Cal-Berkeley/UCLA) (see “Who Teaches Planning?”, Planitzen, January 14, 2013). By merging these cities together, American Urban Form manages to both undercut and misunderstand the importance of Philadelphia. Philadelphia is more important than New York and way more so than Boston in terms of the American planning tradition. Penn’s 1682 plan for Philadelphia demonstrated the scale of the possible for city planning in the New World. Namely, American urban form has always been expansive, what Gandelsonas referred to as “the invention of a new scale”, especially in comparison to European models of urbanism. If the authors had taken different cities as their subject (such as Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans), then a different (and, perhaps, more common) picture might have emerged in their narrative about the physical form of the American city.

This fact reveals the subjectivity lurking at the heart of American Urban Form. The authors’ experiment in representative history fails the most basic test of scientific method because their methodology cannot be objectively repeated to produce similar results for different cities. The results are entirely determined by the subjective choices of those writing the narrative. In this regard, the methodology might be useful as the basis for a student studio project but of little use to anyone outside the classroom. Also, taking the two densest cities in the United States (Boston and New York) as the subject for two-thirds of ‘the City’ allows the authors to craft an overly romantic view (in New Urbanist and Floridian “creative class” terms) of American urban form that does not ring true for the majority of the country. A quick review of Wikipedia’s listing of America’s most dense cities reveals two-thirds are located in the New York and Boston metropolitan regions; though interestingly and importantly, not Philadelphia. It is also interesting the authors’ descriptions of urban form become considerably more assured with the onset of the 20th century, which coincides with the emergence of urban planning as a distinct discipline. Before this, the authors provide as much space to discussing free-range hogs as they do to urban form. In itself, this is revealing since roughly half of the book is devoted to the first 200 years of ‘the City’ whereas the second half covers approximately the last 115 years. This is unfortunate since important aspects of early urban form are casually mentioned and their generative effects are not explored in detail. Instead, the narrative quickly returns to surer ground. i.e. a pseudo-history of political, social, and economic factors.

Does American Urban Form work as historical fiction? Well, not really. The book cannot be given a pass on these grounds either. Disturbingly for academics, this methodology seems to provide the authors with an in-built defense mechanism against criticism and, more importantly, testing of their ideas. Hey, it’s only “a representative history”, meaning, of course, it is a fiction so we have to evaluate the book on these grounds as well. We tend to teach historical fiction (Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, and so forth) in literature courses, not history classes, because what is important is not historical accuracy but the use of literary devices in telling a story. American Urban Form fails the most basic literary tests in this regard. There is no characterization, rising action, dramatic climax, or dénouement. It is all conflict. Most of the book reads like an urban horror story where everyone is neatly divided into oppressor (rich white male, capitalist landowners) and the oppressed (everyone else who is not, especially Black Americans, women, and unions). This provides most of the narrative with an oddly Marxist perspective on American urban history. We say ‘oddly’ because it is so unexpected. This fictional urban history of capitalist oppression in ‘the City’ would sit a little too close for comfort (for some) next to the fictional history of capitalism written by Karl Marx in Das Kapital. The authors drop this odd perspective on their imagined history with the onset of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and the leftist radicalism of the 1960s, which, in effect, conveys an apologia for the social conscience and actions of leftist baby boomers. For example, the authors state not once but twice (without explanation) the economic stagnation of the 1970s was caused by the Vietnam War. It will be a surprise to many who thought it was monetary policy, high taxation and excessive regulatory regimes during the Johnson, Nixon, and Carter Administrations as well as out-of-control government spending by a long-held Democratic U.S. Congress (the Reagan Revolution of 1980s does not seem to exist in the imagined world of ‘the City’, except incidentally or negatively).

In this sense, American Urban Form represents the worst kind of historical revisionism, indoctrinating leftist wish fulfillment (capitalism is evil, the state is good… and everything that follows on from that view) as a “representative” fact of American urban history. Because of this, it does not even qualify as good historical fiction. Much like Whittemore’s detailed and pretty bird’s eye views of ‘the City’ in the book (for the most part, vacant of meaning because they are a fiction, too; the one clear-cut exception is his wonderful aerial perspective of ‘dumbbell tenements’ on page 71), American Urban Form remains trapped in a single perspective on its subject. It either ignores, consigns to happenstance, or weaves an elaborate explanation for anything that might contradict or interrupt that perspective. Collectively, the result is a fanciful city of leftist, pseudo-Marxist fallacies. If you are already a member of the choir, you will like American Urban Form: A Representative History because you know the song and can sing along. If not, you will be better served by reading the history of a real city, examining in detail its historical plans and bird’s eye view drawings, and making your own conclusions.

American Urban Form: A Representative History by Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore with Illustrations by Andrew H. Whittemore, 176 pages, MIT Press, is available from MIT Press here and Amazon here in hardcover and Kindle formats. Prices may vary.

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REVIEW | Paradigm lost, Industrial and post-industrial Detroit | Urban Design International

Featured Image: Choice network analysis at radius 10,000 meters of Detroit in 1952 with industry superimposed from Paradigm lost, Industrial and post-industrial Detroit (Psarra et al, 2013).

REVIEW: Paradigm lost, Industrial and post-industrial Detroit by Sophia Psarra, Conrad Kickert, and Amanda Pluviano, Urban Design International, Advanced Online Publication, March 27, 2013
by Mark David Major, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

There is a simple question at the heart of the Psarra et al paper, “Paradigm lost: Industrial and post-industrial Detroit – An analysis of the street network and its social and economic dimensions from 1796 to the present,” available as an advanced online publication from Urban Design International. This question is: can spatial pattern be implicated in the remarkable urban decline of Detroit over the last half-century? It is an important question precisely because so many architecture, urban design and planning professionals – as well as politicians and policy makers  – never bother to ask it, especially in the United States. The answer provided by Psarra et al is an academically careful and qualified ‘yes’.

Their basic argument is the locating of large-scale industrial uses at the northern periphery of the urban grid (along and near to Davison St./Grand Ave.) beginning around 1900-1910 – in combination with interstate highway system construction and decline of the streetcar system a few decades later – served to disrupt the integrated functioning of the urban street network, commercial, industrial and residential land uses, and the transportation infrastructure serving them (railroads, streetcars) in the city. This facilitated radical decentralization of Detroit to the suburbs, where developers and industry could find ever larger and cheaper land parcels. Their argument is a little more nuanced than this but that is the gist. In doing so, they conclude (though don’t say so bluntly) the automobile both made and destroyed Detroit.

They acknowledge more complex factors were, no doubt, at work in the decline of Detroit but argue understanding the pattern of urban space and how it relates to land uses and transportation infrastructure is crucial for diagnosing the problem. In its diagnosis, the paper excels though it is very light on offering solutions (beyond a vague call for “radical solutions”). For example, they generally discuss what they describe as “Landscape Urbanism” without much detail. They are far too kind to reveal what, I suspect, is probably an outright disdain for this approach to serious urban problems. Landscape Urbanism only exists because it is politically expedient and offers policy makers/politicians the appearance of doing something (and feeds the financial coffers of consultants) when, in fact, it is usually a useless solution that avoids the real problem all together. What is really interesting about their historical analysis is where industrial land uses were not located; namely, along the riverfront at the edge of the Woodward plan. This suggests the seeds of Detroit’s urban decline might be traced back to the early 19th century. Large-scale industrial land uses may not have been allowed to develop along the riverfront of the Woodward plan. If the industrial land uses along Davison/Grand had come to be located along the riverfront instead of the northern periphery, Detroit may have been better positioned to manage its transition from an industrial to a post-industrial city, as other cities have accomplished to varying degrees of success.

By necessity, academic articles cannot cover all of the bases. For example, I would have liked to have seen spatial analysis of contemporary Detroit with its interstate highway system ‘peeled off’ to better reveal its disruptive effect on the underlying street grid pattern. I’m not even sure if current space syntax software allows for this kind of ‘alternative’ analysis. I would have also liked to have seen a spatial model of Detroit embedded within its larger urban context to the south in Canada (Windsor/LaSalle), where the railroad lines do terminate along the riverfront of the Detroit River. There is also the political factor. Detroit has been subject to one-party rule (Democratic) for the last half-century and it’s hard to believe this is only coincidental with its decline as an urban center. To excuse the Democratic Party from Detroit’s decline, one almost has to concede that all government policies are essentially useless (a very Libertarian position). However, there is only so much anyone can cover in an article. “Paradigm lost, Industrial and post-industrial Detroit” is well worth the read. At the very least, it will get you questioning the “conventional wisdom” in the field about Detroit and other cities experiencing similar problems.

You read the full article online or download a PDF via the link below:

URBAN DESIGN International – Paradigm lost: Industrial and post-industrial Detroit – An analysis of the street network and its social and economic dimensions from 1796 to the present.

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