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Comment | We need women designing buildings | CNN.com

Opinion: We need women designing buildings – CNN.com.

We Need to Prize Talent, not Self-Promotion
by Mark David Major, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

Denise Scott Brown should (have) be(en) recognized with Robert Venturi for the 1991 Pritzker Prize. However, the ongoing debate on this subject is frustrating. It is frustrating because the ideal of gender equality expounded for the architectural profession – and, by implication, other professions –  too often relies on arguments that are, at best, manifestly superficial and, at worse, reinforce the gender stereotypes underlying the problem.

This particular debate has not been helped by public comments (perhaps taken of out context) by both Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown that do not ‘hold water’ in explaining why she was not recognized with Venturi for the Pritzker Prize in the first place. For example, in the above CNN article, Scott Brown is quoted as saying””we could not afford to pass up the Pritzker Prize for the sake of our fledgling firm.” It seems far-fetched to describe Venturi Scott Brown and Associates as a “fledgling firm” in 1991. A Wikipedia listing of their selected works identifies four major projects in 1991, more than any other year listed over a 44-year period (Source: Wikipedia). Quite the opposite, in fact, since it is fair to argue the late 80s/early 90s represents the earning power highpoint for Venturi Scott Brown’s particular brand of post-modern architecture in the profession. Venturi and Scott Brown’s public comments suggest they are protecting somebody for the initial oversight, either Venturi himself or The Hyatt Foundation, which organizes and awards the Pritzker Prize.

However, this is a side issue to larger problems: namely, the promotion of talent, in general, and insidious effects of gender discrimination, in particular, in the architectural profession. Marika Shioiri-Clark and John Cary’s CNN opinion piece manages to negatively typify these problems at a gross level while still being right in some of its details. First, we do not need “women designing buildings.” This is the same superficial argument we have heard from feminists for decades; namely, if we only elected women to political leadership we would have world peace. Female political leaders have proven time and time again over the last 40 years that equality has nothing to do with their gender and everything to do with how women can be equally inspirational, vicious, divisive and (in)competent as their male counterparts. Instead, what we need are talented people (women and men) designing buildings. We should have zero interest in promoting mediocre architects, regardless of their gender.

As Shioiri-Clark and Cary correctly point out, female architectural students regularly outperform their male counterparts in school, substantially so in our experience. If the profession truly prized and promoted talent, female architects would naturally rise to the top because there lies the talent (sorry, male architects but it is true). However, the profession is still trapped within the grips of the (often self-manufactured) ‘myth of architectural genius’. This practice prizes the architect’s ability to self-promote and network that myth in the profession, popular media, and books. In doing so, the superficial is valued over the substantive in architecture (very post-modern, indeed). Unfortunately, the profession’s manifest failure to promote talent also sweeps women architects out of the limelight as a result. Once you get pass the names Zaha Hadid, Denise Scott Brown and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, it’s damn difficult to name any superstar women architects. It’s even worse for planners (Jane Jacobs was an economist, so don’t even try it). However, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves.” Our vision is my-opic (literally and metaphorically).

Shioiri-Clark and Cary also correctly call out the Architectural Registration Exam (ARE) process for institutionalizing discriminatory practices against women but then incorrectly name the reason (i.e. financial). The real discriminatory practice against women associated with the ARE lies in the limit to a 6-month reporting period for the Intern Development Program (IDP). When a woman temporarily leaves the workforce to bear a child, the typical disruption to her career is much longer than 6 months. Sure, there are some ‘super’ women out there in the profession, for whom this is not the case. They may work until 4-6 weeks before giving birth and return to work 3-4 weeks afterwards. But, more typically, the disruption to a woman’s career extends over a two-year period from the early decision-making stages of pregnancy to the early childhood-raising stages after birth. Let’s be honest, given the supreme and unchallenged role that mothers play in raising their children (especially compared to fathers), the real disruption is 18 years… or even a lifetime. In any case, the one thing the profession could do today to promote gender equality and enable more women to become registered architects is extend the reporting period for IDP to two years.

In their opinion piece, Shioiri-Clark and Cary then transition to the visibility of women architects in the profession. If we focus the question on the promotion of talent instead of valuing the promotion of self, then this is the same problem, i.e. the crème will rise to the top if we value talent. At this point, the Shioiri-Clark and Cary article takes a mind-bogglingly bizarre turn to discuss “Architect Barbie”, which manages to be both comical and hypocritical, thereby undercutting every point they are trying to make in the article. Perhaps it’s true that Shioiri-Clark and Cary only do this to spark controversy and drive visitor hits on the article. However, when it comes to the larger question of gender discrimination, it’s hard to get more inconsequential than discussing dolls within the context of a serious subject

Shioiri-Clark and Cary close the article by further expounding further on the ‘world would be a better place if it was run by women’ argument/fallacy. It would not be any different except women would more equally share in the blame for our problems as well as the praise when those problems are solved. That is true equality. So give Denise Scott Brown her share of the 1991 Pritzker Prize but women and men should not make the mistake of thinking it addresses the real problem in the profession. At this point, the Pritzker Prize controversy is a distraction from that problem, which is promoting and prizing talent, whatever the gender. If the playing field was level in this regard, there is little doubt women would rise en masse to the top of the profession… and our built environment would, indeed, be better served.

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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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Poor Richard’s Almanac for Planners | Issue 7

Courteous Reader,

I am tempted to win your favor by declaring I wrote this Almanac for Planners solely for the public good. However, this is insincere and you are too wise for the deception of this pretense. The fact is I am excessively poor and, unfortunately, excessively wifeless. To address both problems, I must begin to make some profit since every potential wife always asks, “What kind of car do you drive?” I always have to reply, “I walk”, and the potential wife thinks I am a deviant.

Indeed, this motive would have been enough to write this Almanac many years ago except for the overwhelming desire of the public and professionals to only hear what they want to hear and my overwhelming desire to secure a salary. I am now of sufficient age to no longer care about telling people what they want to hear but only about what they need to know. This has freed me to write this Almanac for Planners in increments of ten cause it worked for Moses and the Almighty. Hopefully, my Almanac gains your likes and retweets as a means of demonstrating the usefulness of my efforts but also your charity to this poor Friend and Servant,

Richard

On Planners

61. A sucker is born every minute with the credentials to be a bad urban planner.

62. An urban planner whose only priority is to save their job isn’t a very good one.

63. Too often, planners default to saying nothing when they should be saying plenty with meaning.

64. Planners often talk the talk and rarely walk the walk but should always talk the walk and walk the talk. Repeat and rise.

65. If you don’t want to pay the piper, then don’t pretend to dance to his tune.

66. An urban planner whose priority is to save their job is a bad planner but often an excellent bureaucrat and politician. Be wary.

67. Too often, planners make the mistake of being quiet when they should speak up and talking when they should listen. Resolve to learn the difference and do better.

On Urban Decay

68. Entropy increases. (Second Law of Thermodynamics)

69. Wall Street’s philosophy is ‘the shit rolls downhill.’ The planner’s philosophy should be ‘clean up the shit before it accumulates.’

70. The more you put things back together, the more they fall apart and sometimes it’s best to let things fall apart completely so you can start over fresh.

The Issue 8 cometh soon!

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The Spectre of the Ultimate Green Building

by Mark David Major

Imagine the ultimate sustainable green building… housing hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, drawing on geothermal power as an almost inexhaustible source of energy, and constructed to use the Earth itself to provide a natural means of cooling. This building is the very ideal of “Gizmo Green”, as defined by Steve Mouzon, since it draws upon cutting edge technological advances to provide ecological solutions. This magnificent building of our imagination even has its own light rail transit system. However, it also has a distinctly anti-urban quality about it. It can only be found in exurban locations, i.e. near to an urban location but not too close. Somehow, it reconciles an inherently contradictory nature into its very function. In short, this magnificent green building is all things to all people.

Can such a green building really be imagined? It already has; it is Ernst Stavo Blofeld’s underground volcano lair from You Only Live Twice (1967).

volcano-concept-art-ken-adam-you-only-live-twiceKen Adams’s concept art for Ernst Stavo Blofeld’s underground volcano lair in You Only Live Twice (1967).

Blofeld’s lair was built in a dormant volcano so presumably draws on geothermal power for energy. It was also built underground so the building uses the Earth itself to provide natural cooling for its interior. In the film, we see hundreds of Blofeld’s minions in the lair but presumably its capacity is much larger than portrayed… or the film’s budget would allow in terms of extras. The building even has its own small-scale light rail system as well as a helipad and space launch pad! The design also appears, in part, to draw upon Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon in terms of visual surveillance. This is likely necessary since paranoia is a fundamental aspect of Blofeld’s autocratic power in the Bond films. The design of Blofeld’s underground volcano lair was Michael Myers’ satirical inspiration for Dr. Evil’s ‘secret’ volcano lair in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999). It is fair to conclude the specifications for Dr. Evil’s lair were much the same as Blofeld’s in You Only Live Twice.

evil_lair_landscapeDr. Evil’s ‘secret’ volcano lair in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999).

Blofeld and Dr. Evil are not the only ‘Bond’ villains to dabble in radical environmentalism. Karl Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) attempts to manipulate the United States and Soviet Union into launching global nuclear war while he is safely secluded in his underwater lair, Atlantis, with a chosen few to rebuild human civilization after the holocaust. Stromberg is a marine scientist who implicitly – and paradoxically – appears to have a radical environmentalist agenda. We say ‘paradoxically’ because his plan involves plunging the Earth into Nuclear Winter. His underwater lair, Atlantis, off the coast of Sardinia appears to draw on many of the same design specifications for Blofled’s lair with some modifications, i.e. drawing upon underwater thermal vents for energy, using the Mediterranean Sea for natural cooling of the structure, and so on. In the follow-up film, Moonraker (1979), the villain Hugo Drax explicitly engages in large-scale eco-terrorism by hatching a scheme to release a viral toxin on the Earth, which will destroy all human life but leave unharmed all other plant and animal life. Drax takes the position of environmentalists to their logical – and inevitable – conclusion, which is the Earth would be better off without any human beings. Drax attempts to implement his dastardly plan while safely secluded in his moon base lair (also Michael Myers’ satirical inspiration for Dr. Evil’s moon base lair in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me). Finally, the Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Francisco Scaramanga, uses solar power for energy at his small-scale lair (in comparison to the Blofeld, Stromberg, and Drax hideouts) on an island in the South China Sea.

atlantis-base-spy-who-loved-meKarl Stromberg’s underwater lair, Atlantis, in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).

Indeed, a strong radical environmentalism strain appears to be common to many of the most-noteworthy ‘Bond’ villains, more so than one might expect at first glance. Putting aside the issues of international nuclear terrorism and blackmail, counter-intelligence, terrorism, revenge, and extortion (the “Special Executive for…”, i.e. S.P.E.C.T.R.E.), it is a legitimate question to ask whether ‘Bond’ villains represent some sort of ideal model for environmental protectionism in the world today. Is this the future of an Environmental Protection Agency and other government/non-governmental entities gone mad with power and their own narrow agenda? Are Ernst Stavo Blofeld and Dr. Evil the future faces of radical environmentalism?

the_face_of_eco-terrorismThe Future Faces of Radical Environmentalism? (left) Ernst Stavo Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) and (right) Dr. Evil (Michael Myers).

Of course, in the end, James Bond and Austin Powers always defeat the villain. In contrast to the radical environmentalist strain of these villains, Bond and Powers are the ultimate urbane individualists. Powers lives in a bachelor pad (depending on the film and time period, above Piccadilly Circus or on the South Bank in central London). Bond apparently lives in a central London row house, presumably in the Bloomsbury or Chelsea neighborhood judging from an early scene in Live and Let Die (1973). Perhaps Bond even lives next door to Patrick McGoohan’s “Number Six.” Is there a Spy Row a couple of blocks over from Saville Row in London? In any case, in the end, the traditional urbanist always defeats the radical environmentalist to save the day and the world… and get the girl.

Updated: December 11, 2012

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Waiting for Gravity to Pile On

IMG_0048If ever there was an appropriate metaphor for today’s American society, then this is it. Instead of taking action to cut down the perilously hanging tree limb in this grocery store parking lot, someone thought a more effective measure would be to place shopping carts in a circle around the probable landing zone with cautionary tape wrapped about the carts and wait for gravity to do all the work. This is how we solve problems in today’s America. We wait for gravity to pile on instead of taking action to solve the problem. It’s an insane world!

From Concrete Blonde

 

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