Undoing the Collapse

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The occasion of America’s Independence Day seemed a good-as-ever – no, a better-than-average – opportunity to visit Detroit, which seemingly declared independence from prosperity decades ago. The design writing community has been doing some hand-wringing lately about “ruin porn,” so these descriptions will be kept to a relative minimum. But it really does have to be seen to be believed.

Nothing can really prepare you for the shock of the scale of decay. Giant factories that were once the heart of America’s industrial might sit shattered and pockmarked with graffiti, spalling concrete, and poked through with mature-looking trees. In many neighborhoods, trees fall on the streets and aren’t picked up. Skyscrapers loom cadaverously with their windows blown out.

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Sidewalks are overgrown. There are many blocks in the city where only one or two homes remain standing, all else having been torn down, burned down, or simply collapsed into humus. Some areas are so depopulated, it would be relatively easy to convince yourself you were standing in some tiny Alabama town on the edge of a swamp, rotting in Faulknerian torpor.

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I’ve never understood why Hollywood directors spend so much time and money digitally altering familiar cityscapes for their “dystopian apocalypse” movies. They should just come and shoot in Detroit, which could use all the injections of commerce it can get.

The thing is, it’s not all bad. We’ve all heard the jokes about the low, low, price of once-glorious houses now up for auction – and there is truth to this — there are certainly bargains to be had, if you don’t mind a little renovation work and a 21st century version of “homesteading.”

Places like Midtown, Downtown, and the Eastern Market, a multicultural melee of arched sheds, venerable storefronts and food trucks, could be described as “thriving.”

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There are several massive casinos scattered around downtown, and the streets around these behemoths are a sea of taillights, jostling crowds, loud music and street vendors – in other words, inhabited like the streets of a thriving city.

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A concerted effort by local business boosters (among which Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans is the most substantial) keeps Campus Martius, anchored by a bistro and fountain, lively right into the evening. Vestiges of former glory and future potential are all around in a few of the core commercial districts. There is haute cuisine in Corktown, and there are secret gardens at La Dolce Vita right off a blasted stretch of Woodward Ave. The former Grand Trunk railway ticket office is now a craft beer bar serving local brews.

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There are more plans for the area between Midtown and Downtown. Three of Detroit’s professional sports teams will have their own homes within blocks of each other, once a Red Wings stadium opens across the Fisher Freeway from Ford Field and Comerica Park. Encouragingly, this one is to be surrounded by a mixed-use development containing up to 2,000 residential units. Owned by the Ilitch family, one of the larger concerns in Detroit that is not Dan Gilbert, the so-called “Sports and Entertainment District” will extend downtown across the void of the freeway into a vestigial area that currently consists of the odd turn-of-the-century home, some immaculate, some derelict, and many vacant lots. The planned M-1 Woodward Avenue streetcar, replacing a line that was torn out in 1956, will be operational by late 2016, connecting major areas of activity like Wayne State University with Downtown, passing right in front of the new arena.

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It is discouraging that, as a result, the Joe Louis Arena (also owned by Ilitch), already the fourth-oldest NHL stadium, completed in 1979, will be demolished, giving people one less reason to ride the erstwhile People Mover monorail that encircles downtown. Which isn’t to say it was a great piece of architecture – it just seems like Detroit has enough buildings to demolish already – and what will replace it on the waterfront?

What is so deeply strange about Detroit is that it’s not as if there is one “side” of the city that “decent” people tend to avoid, like the south side of Chicago or the north side of St. Louis. The advance of decomposition has so permeated the city, which was already somewhat sprawling when it was intact, such that the “good areas,” such as Palmer Park, containing very well-preserved Queen Anne and other eclectic turn-of-the-century manor homes, can consist of only a few square blocks and be totally surrounded by urban blight.

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This makes “going out to dinner in the city,” unless one sticks strictly to the freeways and prescribed approaches to the city’s attractions, a kind of bushwhacking expedition. Turning down any side street is more likely than not to yield a sagging house or burnt-out car, potholes big enough, and untended long enough to support weeds, dark streetlights or a stray dog. And not very many people. It’s kind of like Grand Theft Auto meets Parts Unknown.

To make the landscape a little less unknowable, and to begin to put numbers to the solutions, there is always Projects like the Motor City Mapping "Blexting” app, which allows enterprising citizens to send Instagram-like reports of blight to a mapping database, infers that data-aggregation will become part of the story of how a region gets its head around the topography of dereliction. The Detroit Land Bank Authority and the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force will be using this street-team data to determine which of the 27,000-plus buildings it has already logged is in most dire need of demolition. (The city estimates as many as 70,000 buildings need to be taken down, and that 5,000 of them are occupied by squatters). But what comes after?

Though the city is still depopulating, the cauldron of potential remedies for its ills is bubbling over. Although the large-scale, developer-driven schemes are more likely to gain traction because of the monetary and political largesse associated with them, Detroit is by no means short on creative energy and ideas, many of them small-scale and theoretically achievable.

There’s Made Studio’s idea to connect the burgeoning Eastern Market across a currently squalid few blocks of abandoned factories to the Dequindre Cut, a former Grand Trunk rail right-of-way that now hosts a bike path along part of its length. Design and quality of life do matter – but jobs matter even more.

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To that end, the Motor City Project, driven by the World Policy Institute, a two-year pilot project to repopulate and revitalize Detroit using “lessons learned from thriving communities in developing world megacities.” The aim is to repurpose some of the informal micro-enterprises activity that happens in places like Nairobi and Lagos, where government dysfunction and poverty thwart most conventional attempts at building businesses, which should sound familiar to Detroiters. Though it has a tinge of neo-liberal optimism – the idea is that entrepreneurs can be enticed to move anywhere with limited government interference – importantly it is focused on jobs and integrating purported “new arrivals” with longstanding residents through “collective community restoration projects.” For a city that literally can’t keep the lights on, it’s not hard to see the appeal of this as an idea, but it’s not going to improve police response times or backfill pension deficits.

To further stoke the fire, Mayor Mike Duggan this June announced the formation of a new Innovation District, in a 4.3-square-mile area that already holds 55 percent of the city’s job and contains three percent of its landmass. Concentrating this energy on Downtown and Midtown bodes well for transit-oriented density, “knowledge” businesses, arts and entertainment. But the cynicism of long-time Detroit residents who have seen heavy industry pack up for good,for decades on end, is understandable.

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There are already worries about gentrification, expressed in darkly humorous graffiti such as “Hipster ATM,” scrawled on a foreboding-looking abandoned building just a stone’s throw from the Eastern Market parking lot.

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There is even griping in the New York Times about potential dilution of the high-quality art scene that is just now breaking into the national level. But the artists and small entrepreneurs will survive – there is enough room in Detroit for all the action-painting studios and artisanal coffee shops in the country, and it’s hard to imagine from this point in time how over-gentrification could ever be a problem here.

With so much attention paid to small-craft businesses and micro-entrepreneurs, it’s easy to see why someone in an outlying neighborhood that for decades has been left to fester with high crime, low income and little opportunity might be skeptical of such proposals. Is this latest raft of proposals going to make any difference for them?

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There have been previous, more organic attempts to co-opt abandoned property for the purpose of spirit-lightening, if not necessary enterprise that will hit the tax rolls in a substantial way. When we visit a place like the Heidelberg Project, a madcap collection of occupied and abandoned houses in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood, festooned with the childlike collage art of Tyree Guyton and attacked relentlessly by both arsonists and slum-busting mayors, we’re both apprehensive and giddy.

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We ask ourselves what we’re doing. Are we helping a neighborhood regain its footing after years of neglect by proving that it’s safe to visit?

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Are we “slumming”?

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Are we consuming a slightly more brightly colored version of “ruin porn”?

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There’s not much to buy there besides a few Guyton books and trinkets in the small gift shop, so it’s hard to argue visitors to Heidelberg are helping the local economy much. Then again, if there were open businesses to serve them, perhaps they’d linger longer, but there aren’t. Detroit is full of such chicken-and-egg stories.

If – and this is a sizable “if” with an unknowable timeline – sizable industries return to the city and hire low-skilled workers in large numbers, the new concentration of energy on downtown means those with means live there as well as drive there from the suburbs, government can clean up its act and provide services reliably – Detroit just might emerge on the other side of this debacle a city more livable, economically diverse and appropriately-scaled than the shell it left behind.

The impetus to re-invest in Detroit with accompanying grand rhetoric, is not new, and has delivered relatively little to the daily lives of its residents, though it has at least drawn attention away from abject decay through the power of iconography. The Renaissance Center, a seven-skyscraper shimmering behemoth by John Portman, first opened in 1977.  It was financed largely by the Ford Motor Company in the early 1970s as part of a civic campaign to stem the tide of disinvestment that had already begun in the city – and this was before the Arab Oil Crisis and the emergence of fuel-efficient Japanese cars to add to the Big Three’s woes. With its freeway access ramps, gigantic blank berms facing the street, copious parking, and a “city within a city” program, RenCen was seemingly custom-designed to make suburbanites feel safe driving into the city once again, if only to shoot up above it in hermetically sealed glass elevators and view it from a safe distance.

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Ironically perhaps, the complex now is the corporate headquarters of General Motors, which spent $500 million to renovate it in 2004. The tradeoff for the updated spiffiness of the Logan’s Run-like atrium, with big glass facades on both the river and street frontage, is that it is now primarily a GM showroom.

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Outside, embedded in the granite pavers of the riverfront promenade, there is a world map representing the extent of the GM universe. Each point of light represents a factory. On a recent night, the lights representing Gravatai, Brazil and Hanoi, Vietnam, shone brightly amidst the strollers in the warm summer air. The lamp representing Detroit was burnt out. Scrawled in chalk, an arrow and the word “fix” pointed to it. 

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Of Batons and Biennials

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Through most of its history, Chicago has been in one way or another on the defensive. From a cow town on the frontier that burned to the ground in 1871, the city emerged from the ashes to stage the Columbian Exposition just 22 years later. The well-trodden list of superlative architectural and engineering achievements came fast and furious from the Gilded Age through the early post-World-War-II era: the steel-framed skyscraper, the raising of entire blocks and the reversal of the Chicago River to improve sanitation and drainage, the no-nonsense brawn of the elevated, the steel mills, the Century of Progress, the black skeletal logic of Mies.

The Second City, the Windy City, the Hog Butcher to the World. The clichés raise their hands and are counted. Despite civic embarrassments like the parking-meter sell-off and a persistently high murder rate, Chicago in the last few decades has mostly been on a path of cultural ascendance. Its name is virtually synonymous with American architecture, though its significance has waned in the past few decades. It is now a world capital of haute cuisine, has Millennium Park, has the Art Institute and the Poetry Foundation, and is about to get the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, for which at the very least will bring adventuresome architects to the lakefront. Yet the bravado persists, through successive mayors and civic leaders, it seems we are the city as forever-wound-up kid brother. Enough people in enough high places believe it is time for Chicago to once again puff up and prove itself.

Thus it was with characteristic fanfare that the Chicago Architecture Biennial was announced in June. Taking place from Oct. 1, 2015 through Jan. 3, 2016, and driven by a lead gift of $2.5 million from BP, the Biennial “will bring the world’s leading architectural talent together to explore the ideas, ambitions, and challenges facing the contemporary city in an age of accelerated change,” according to the press release.

 Directed by two University of Illinois at Chicago instructors, Sarah Herda, director of the Graham Foundation, and Joseph Grima, former editor of Domus, who have both taken turns running New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture, the Biennial is currently forming its International Advisory Committee comprised of leading lights David Adjaye, Elizabeth Diller, Jeanne Gang, Frank Gehry, the Pritzker Prize’s Lord Peter Palumbo, the Serpentine Gallery’s Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Chicago’s own vieux terrible, Stanley Tigerman. To get an idea of what a Chicago Architecture Biennial might be like, look no further than Tigerman, who is in a perpetual boxer stance, and will likely be instrumental in setting the tone.

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Of late, the 84-year-old Tigerman has been on something of a victory trot through town and through the media. He provided the preface to Chicagoisms: The City as Catalyst for Architectural Speculationby Alexander Eisenschmidt and Jonathan Makinda, a book that details the ongoing World’s Fair of experimentation that has used the city’s gridded ultra-logic and can-do energy as a platform for audacious, if messy results here and around the world.

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Its companion exhibition at the Art Institute, in the same room that housed Tigerman’s indictment of Mies sycophancy Titanic a few months ago, bears his gimlet-eye perspective if not his direct hand, while a second exhibit, Architecture to Scale, features several rooms full of his architectural models.

Tigerman, an unrepentant Postmodernist, has long been considered an agent provocateur against received notions about Chicago architecture, in particular the line of inheritance from Sullivan to Wright to Van der Rohe and beyond, and what he sees as the cosseted interpretation of the city’s architectural output as being mostly driven by structural optimization.

 “The city’s architectural reputation was rigidly codified through the first three quarters of the twentieth century,” he wrote in Chicagoisms. “And just like that, Chicago was transmuted from a cow town to a Mies metropolis. Chicago architects reacted against this rigid version of history and began to understand again that they were part of a nexus larger than any one city and a single, self-imposed pragmatic label could possibly represent.”

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Not that he didn’t have a point. By the mid-1970s the relentless copying of Miesian forms had devolved into ubiquity and pastiche – the “fake” non-structural beams pasted to the roof of the 1962 IIT library by Walter Netsch presaged this.

 “It wasn’t Mies that got boring. It was the copiers that got boring,” James Nagle, who, joining Tigerman’s original crew, became one of the Chicago Architecture Seven (then Eleven). “You got off an airplane in the 1970s, and you didn’t know where you were.”

Van der Rohe’s death and the publication of Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture cleared the way for a “new breed of influential academics whose strength was architectural theory and criticism – not simply building – and who challenged the suffocating narrative of the ‘Chicago Schools,’” the book asserts.

Tigerman embodies this, and his output of commentary has been at least as, if not more important to his own career and Chicago’s architectural reputation as his built work. He was the Chicago representative to the first architecture-themed Venice Biennale in 1976, from which he displayed and sent flesh-colored “dirty postcards” attacking the vacuity of suburban life, which were sold for $5. One concluded, “All the pricks live in the suburbs, anyway.”

The same year he curated the Chicago Architects exhibition as a counterpoint to a parallel exhibition called 100 Years of Architecture in Chicago: Continuity of Structure and Form, organized by Mies acolytes Peter Pran and Franz Schulze at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Chicago Architects included his own work and championed the parts of Chicago architecture history, such as shingle-style and post-Prairie-school vernacular, that Tigerman and co-organizers Ben Weese, Stuart Cohen and Larry Booth felt were ignored by the mainstream critics, who continued to obsess over structure from the balloon frame to the curtain wall.  

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Architecture to Scale showcases Tigerman’s models for a number of built and unbuilt projects, including the Illinois Holocaust Museum and a projection room at the now-defunct Herman Miller campus near Sacramento, as well as his R. Crumb-like line drawings, festooned with written commentary and stress lines reminiscent of the face of a risible pensioner telling a well-rehearsed joke, which seems appropriate enough.

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It’s all there: the suburban houses cleaved in two, the Indiana Dunes house shaped like a hot dog, and another one shaped like the pompadour of its owner.

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There are the checkerboard patterns and the skewed gables and over-scaled roundels. And when these are rendered in reality? It’s as if Pee Wee Herman designed a series of retirement homes.

There is even a “lifeguard station,” which is wheelchair-accessible for a disabled lifeguard – it even looks like a wheelchair. What a knee-slapper!

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A Library for the Blind that looks like a car – but how would they know? Get it? 

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As with most of Postmodernism, Tigerman’s brand of humor often works better when it’s on paper or contained within a model than built in actuality. Tigerman is, after all, both the author of Schlepping Through Ambivalence: Essays on an American Architectural Condition and the architect of Piper’s Alley and the garage at 60 E. Lake.

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In the hands of hacks, Modernism was boring – but Postmodernism in the hands of hacks was revolting, and it became shorthand for the strip-mall suburbia Tigerman purported to hate.

Most people don’t want to live or work inside a polemic. The only architect who seems to get away with that is Rem Koolhaas, who is not without his whimsies, but typically renders his complex ideas as essays of structural and spatial theatrics, as opposed to one-liner gateaux.

Which brings us back to biennials, where people go specifically to inhabit a polemic. This year’s Venice Biennale was curated by Koolhaas, who made waves by insisting that all exhibits table any showcasing of contemporary architects and instead interpret a theme of “Fundamentals,” through the vehicle of “Elements,” architecture’s components, like windows, columns and toilets.

Just down the hall from Tigerman’s room, the Art Institute’s Chicagoisms exhibit also features the work of Bureau Spectacular’s Jimenez Lai, who approaches his installation projects with considerable humor but also some serious spatial questioning, which earned him a place at the 2014 Venice Biennale. Witness Planes of Misfits, a wall-mounted sculpture with extruded Styrofoam tubes positioned as inhabitable volumes – and not a right angle among them.

 “The grid, nowhere more visible than in Chicago, transforms nature into neutral, indisputable, and absolute facts,” reads the accompanying placard. “In contrast, willfulness is the agent of ambition that allows architects to tamper with nature. Willfulness is the courage to be irreverent to the grid, to transform facts into fictions, and to disturb absolutism with ill-advised logic. To be willful is to be human, and we must accept the artificial, subjective tendencies that render architecture decidedly man-made.”

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His Venice Biennale exhibit, The Township of Domestic Parts, consisted of a series of nine small pavilions Lai calls “an urbanism of the interior.” Each pavilion is a single-program house that can be circumvented or fully occupied – House of Study, House of Sleep, House of Pleasure, House of Shit, and so on. “When you walk through, you think of yourself as permeable,” Lai has said. “It’s a kind of loose-fit plan.”

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Although not officially involved in the Chicago Biennale (yet), Lai appears to be the anointed inheritor of Tigerman’s acerbic legacy, whether he wants it or not. Lai and Tigerman sat for a Chicago Architecture Foundation conversation that was ostensibly about Lai’s experience at the Venice Biennale, but was as much a passing of the baton from one “bad boy” to the next.

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That image has specific implications that Tigerman was all too happy to resurrect. He recalled an event at the Archeworks alternative design school in 2008 called “Passing the Baton” which was moderated by Ned Cramer, who was then the editor of Architect magazine.

 “I pulled out three batons from a briefcase,” Tigerman says. “One was a conductor’s baton, one was the kind you pass in a relay race, and one was a hunting knife. I tried to hand it to Ned Cramer, and said, ‘your job is to kill the father.’”

 He invited Lai to do the same.

“Jiminez Lai is part of the generation becoming ‘bad boys,’ as it were,” Tigerman said. “Overturning the status quo. That’s your job. There’s no question that you’re the man right now.”

Although Tigerman pushed Lai to be more political in his work and his commentary, and Lai agreed to this necessity, at present Lai seems a bit more cautious with the blade in his hand. His reflection on the Venice Biennale was that the generation between his and Tigerman’s had fallen victim to dogma. Yet he approached the issue more gingerly than Tigerman probably would have.

“I’m not going to name names, but I ran into a few people who were from the generation between us, and their natural response to things they did not understand was dismissive,” Lai said. “They get a little snooty about what they do understand. I find that really repulsive. I think they were being annoying.”

For his own part, Tigerman alluded darkly to the failures of his own generation, the monopolization of architectural ideas still commanded by the coastal elites, even as he beamed down on the next generation – many of whom share lineage and association with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s architecture program – and invited them to slay him.

The talk was days before the Chicago Biennial was announced, and Tigerman could barely contain himself, hinting that something big was about to happen. Sarah Herda was in the audience, receiving all the shout-outs Tigerman hadn’t flung at Lai.

“Now, you only have to go to the Graham Foundation and see what Sarah has done, which I urge all of you to do,” Tigerman said. “It’s an entirely different, more welcoming place than it was with any of the former directors. Sarah has actually put her mouth where the money is. She’s actually in the process of making a change. Something is happening. For those of you who are Jiminez’s generation, or younger yet, stick around. Some great things are about to be happening here.”

Asked about Peter Eisenman’s comment that Koolhaas, having finally accepted the curatorship of the Biennale, was “stating the end of his career as an architect,” Lai responded that curation was a high honor and an important component of an architect’s development.

“For Peter Eisenman to say that about Rem Koolhaas, as someone who is more attracted to generous people, I find it off-putting,” Lai said. “Second, it misses the point about being an architect. We’re here to understand the world. That is not always being contextual, but it is definitely about being a contributor to culture. And for someone who has gone around being a journalist to every aspect of society, and who transfers that into a physical representation that becomes a building. We have some schizophrenic tendencies, but winding up as a curator is an enviable spot, in my view.”

Given the momentum and direction of events, it seems highly likely Lai will once again get his chance to wind up in that spot, and if he does, it will be a big part of the story about how Chicago got its architectural groove back. The question is, will this “nice bad boy” have to get meaner to keep up Chicago’s punchy reputation?

Country Life

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The slim volume containing Modern American Housing: High-Rise, Reuse, Infill takes on the nettlesome, nebulous, double-wide question: What is the American “home” in this post-recessionary era? Modernism has “failed” us, and so have conventional “production housing” development models and federally subsidized home loans. The single-family home on a third of an acre is a retrograde, unsustainable model.

Enter the high-rise? Yes and no. Editor Peggy Tully’s point of view is that there are alternatives, but the book is overly breezy in its discussion of them.

Through a series of case studies divided into three sections, “High-Rise,” “Re-Use,” and “Infill,” each prefaced by an essay from a leading practitioner in each typology (Andrew Bernheimer, Julie Eizenberg, and Stanley Saitowitz), Modern American Housing seeks to bring under-wing a vast array of recent projects, all of which stand as eloquent bulwarks against the further McMansion-ization of the nation.

A scene-setting essay by academic Jonathan Massey places these projects in the context of the fraught and frantic American housing market, in which the cult of homeownership has excused successive atrocities, from greenfield bulldozing to redlining.

A jubilant interview exchange between Douglas Gauthier, Philip Nobel, and SHoP principals Vishaan Chakrabarti and Gregg Pasquerelli — whose work strangely does not appear here – succinctly captures the issues at hand.

The small format of the book allows for quick reference and portability, but comprehensiveness and clarity suffer as a result. Most of the case studies are one page; some are two. Some have floor plans, some don’t; some plans are scaled, some are not. With only a few paragraphs to explain them, meaningful comparison between the cases is elusive.

The antidote to the absence of Chakrabarti and his work from Modern American Housing is administered in diluvian portions in A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America.

If the first generation of books about “the end of suburbia” and the resurgence of the American city primarily served up the facts to underscore that theme, A Country of Cities tells us what to do with those facts. A manifesto it is, yet it is so convincingly supported by straightforward graphics, it is remarkable that some of the solutions proposed haven’t been painfully obvious for many years now.

Chakrabarti—whose career as Columbia University professor, former director of city planning for Manhattan under New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, and partner at ShoP Architects, is the envy of everyone who has tried to get a high-rise (or anything) built in Gotham—displays the confidence of an idealogue with a crew of reinforcements waiting in the wings.

The manifesto calls for nothing less than transforming the US from a country of “highways, houses and hedges,” into a country of “trains, towers and trees,” through several dramatic moves.

First, eliminate the mortgage interest deduction (MID), which currently redirects $101 billion in annual federal tax revenues towards households in the upper-income brackets, and away from infrastructure investment, education and low-income housing. In Chakrabarti’s math, $517.6 billion in revenue could be freed up from eliminating the MID over a 10-year period.

Second, enact the American Smart Infrastructure Act (whose acroynm is “ASIA”) to fund high-speed rail, mass transit,  and equalize the balance of payments cities make to state and federal governments, which would increase investment in cities.

Third, assign the true cost of suburban, low-density development to those who would cling to it, turning a $4 auto trip to the big-box store into a $10 trip.

As all good manifestos do, at some points A Country of Cities loosens its grip on facts to support the overarching theme. It excoriates suburban childhood obesity without mentioning that this is a paralyzing issue in the inner city. It labels former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa an “enlightened public official,” which is a point of view almost exclusively held by developers. But it also takes aim at progressive sacred cows, acknowledging that the good works of Jane Jacobs are often as not used as conservative cudgels by NIMBYs, and stridently recommending against adopting the European model of tall buildings outside dense city centers, citing the ghettoization of its suburbs.

In today’s polarized discussions around the future of cities, A Country of Cities book will make enemies, which probably means it is doing something right.

A Spy in the Haas of Kool

On Nov. 7, 2013, Rem Koolhaas, founding partner, Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), sat for an interview that was published in CTBUH Journal, 2014, Issue 1. This is the full-length version of that interview. 

Koolhaas was joined by design partner David Gianotten , who is intimately involved in the firm’s Asian projects.

The image above is a sketch Koolhaas drew to illustrate the design principles behind the McCormick Tribune Campus Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Daniel Safarik:      With your recent completion of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange – it’s obviously a very different building from CCTV, in a different city. In the course of the decade or so since CCTV was proposed and the Shenzhen Stock Exchange was completed, what has changed about working in China?

Rem Koolhaas:    I think a lot has changed, but there is another issue, which is maybe even more important, i.e., where a building or project is. In other words, the culture in Beijing is very different from Shenzhen. Shenzhen is a lot more comparable to Hong Kong or general Asian conditions. Also, the expectations of a building and discourse about a building is less unique in Shenzhen than it is in Beijing, and that has a number of advantages.

The technique is more distributed and common in Shenzhen. You cannot say absolutely that the quality is better in Shenzhen than in Beijing, but good quality is more common in Shenzhen, and more pleasant.

David Gianotten:              One of the main things you also encounter is the difference in how the procedures work and the support the planning bureaus get. The planning bureaus can just be testing and approval bodies, but they can also really try to help a client and make it more professional. Many clients in China have never built before and will never build again. Both the CCTV and the SSE are good examples of teams compiled of the client who are not used to building. The support of the planning bureau is very different for each city. It is much more formal in Beijing, and much more design-oriented and hands-on in Shenzhen.

So, during the process, the client goes through a learning curve. So, how that learning curve is to be supported, how that is to be done by you, are the two main factors in the success of the project. In Shenzhen, that was really a two-sided effort. OMA and the planning bureau really worked together and supported the client in its ambitions.

In Beijing, the planning bureau supported the effort, but more from a technical perspective. From the client’s perspective, it was at a greater distance. That made a very big difference in the process with the client, and also with the contractors. In the case of Shenzhen, the client was looking for different things, was much more educated. They were really going for quality and had the financial means, and time built into the schedule. In the CCTV building it was a little bit more traditional, in that the client was mostly invested in the schedule and the financial aspects, leaving the architect to advocate for design quality. That is a very interesting difference, which also meant the speed of the two buildings was different.

RK:           Which of course, in Shenzhen, they have created a city of about 20 million now, in about 20 years. In Beijing, it is an ancient city that is modernizing now. So the perspective is also different. But what is interesting is that both had the same contractor.

DG:          The contractor is one big company, but they have a southern branch and a northern branch, so it wasn’t the same people working on the two buildings, but what was very clear was that they had done many more international projects in between CCTV and SSE. Doing SSE was more routine for them than when they were doing CCTV.

RK:           And then you can really see that in the past seven years, the level of architectural design, and the skill of contractors, and the sophistication of clients has leapt considerably.

DS:           So, the quality is beginning to catch up with the speed?

RK:           Yes, I would say so.

DG:          You really see it when there is this good collaboration between government client and architect and contractor, that the quality can be achieved, and it is similar to many places we know in Europe.

DS:           I have some questions around the word “context,” with which you have dealt harshly in the past. Looking at three of your tall buildings in three places – Beijing, Shenzhen and the Rothschild in London, these are all quite different. Do you think there is a threshold of “bigness” beyond which buildings make their own context, and is that universal, or can or should they draw from their surroundings?

RK:           It is really kind of childish to say so, but I think the quote “f—- context” has really been taken out of context. In every situation you have to judge the context. Sometimes there is a context that actually deserves recognition and acknowledgement. Sometimes you have no choice. In the case of Rothschild, we had no choice, because it is an incredibly medieval, delicate part of the city. Therefore you would not want to offend it or create a contrast, necessarily. So you develop ways that generate sort of analogies, and you expose elements of the context that have never been visible before.

I think in the case of CCTV, you could say it is a very contextual building, but the context is not yet visible. It is a building that will be surrounded by 300 taller buildings, so therefore, we realized from the beginning it was a losing proposition to try to be taller. Therefore, we decided to be different, which is a very contextual approach, I would say.

In Shenzhen it is also quite contextual, in the sense that the lifted podium actually works quite well in capturing the environment and making it play within an urban composition, and within, a kind of public space. So, I think it is always possible to work with the context, and I think we are getting quite refined and good at it, but in Europe, “context” is often used as a pretext for an incredibly conservative situation, to eliminate a whole repertoire of possibility.

DG:          Also, what is really important is not trying to invent and or respond to all elements of the context, but to use elements of the context for the good and benefit of the building and its surroundings.
At the same time, one puts a clear contrast between the building and its context. You create a situation in which the building is recognized and does not disappear. So it is a delicate thing.  It all depends on how you describe “context.” Many people define “contextual” as “similar to its surroundings.” Then the role of the architect becomes less important, because every owner or client wants to be different and stand out.

At the same time, you of course have a responsibility to the neighbors and the public that use the space. It’s a subtle balance between trying to find a context you can use for the benefit of your building, and at the same time, find a way to detach the building from the context so that it is unique.

RK:           We are not contextualists in the sense of feeling obliged to be similar, but we are contextualists in the sense that every one of our buildings is a comment on its context. Sometimes a comment is critical; sometimes it is supportive in enlisting that context into a greater whole.

DS:           When it comes to commentary – CCTV is a state-run organization, and China is not a democracy. Some have interpreted the twisting form of CCTV as a symbol of conflict of how China represents itself internally and externally – is there anything to that?

RK:           No, at least not consciously. I don’t think there is anything to it, on the other hand, for me in retrospect the greatest virtue of the building is that it does offer a whole series of multiple identities, in a culture that actually insists on stability. People think of it as a homogeneous place but it is far from it.

DG:          Even within Beijing, identities are very different.

RK:           The building has so many identities.

DG:          If you see how the CCTV building responds to the process of TV-making, and at the same time tries to find almost a public place that is related to state television, it creates a combination of aspects that were never there before under previous leaders. What you see now is that everything becomes more public and visible. The process gets revealed, and I think the building contributes in its architecture to that development. It’s not that we want to take that development on the shoulders of the building, but it definitely helps how people perceive CCTV. It’s in a much more dynamic way than it was before, and it’s more recognizable, because it’s much more “there.”

DS:           It’s certainly a complicated building that reflects that complexity. My impression was that it was all done for one client.

RK:           Yes, but that client is already kind of changing, and has been changing over the past ten years. There is now a quite considerable presence of other companies inside the company. Making of media is fragmenting, so I think you can see that in the building too.

DG:          There are 60 or 70 different parts of the building that have really different identities, groups of people dealing with very different subject matter, and you really recognize that. Of course it is the CCTV building, but right next to it is a Mandarin Oriental Hotel, broadcast studios, and plug-in locations for outside TV vans and vehicles. It gives a very different environment an identity. I think you can say CCTV is one institution, but it has 76 different stations within it.

DS:           My understanding is that the building is currently only about 20 percent occupied?

DG:          No, no, it’s much more. At this moment in time it’s about 60 percent.

RK:           It’s also absorbing freelancers and other contractors.

DG:          But everything there is related to media. Also, with the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, only about 40 percent of the building is occupied by the stock exchange itself. They rent the space to companies that are related to that business.

DS:           Do you worry or fret about the ability of instant iconic skyscrapers to homogenize cities, in the sense of creating a piece of sculptural iconography that could be dropped anywhere?

RK:           I think CCTV could not happen anywhere else. I think that is one of the most interesting things to see today, is that it is not completely orthogonal, it really has an ability to associate it to everything else. It’s not a sort of singular, isolated statement, but on the contrary, it’s a kind of radiating octopus that almost has tentacles.

DG:          In the vertical dimension, the race for height is very often related to a context that is completely irrelevant to the rest of the city. You could envision these needles anywhere. That is also one of the criticisms OMA has about the race for height. It has nothing to do with the rest of the city. It’s only related to your little corner of the world that needs 2,000 square meter floorplates at height, and the rest of the city doesn’t matter. What CCTV and many of the OMA projects do is trying to keep the connection with the city, and build a real piece of the city, not something that totally liberates itself from the city.

So if you talk about the highest building, it is often something that detaches itself from the city and could be anywhere, although I would be very careful about saying that in each continent. The race for height is, in every different continent, a very different race, and based in very different background ideas of clients.

RK:           The more experience I have, the harder I find it to generalize. The Burj, which should be the wrong kind of building that is only interested in height, it kind of has established its own context in a really wonderful way. If you are there, it is not only amazingly strong as an individual building, but also for the kind of effect it has had on the city of Dubai as a whole and on its immediate environment. It’s created a center. Therefore, I wouldn’t want to be seen as a kind of “anti-height” type, because in certain conditions it is a really wonderful device. It’s ambitious, and that makes the difference.

DG:          The problem begins when many buildings that strive to be high lack any other ambitions. For the Burj, that was totally not the case.

DS:           I have a question about New York. You wrote Delirious New York in 1978. In the New York of today, we are seeing many skinny skyscrapers that place billionaires more than 1,000 feet above the ground. Do you think the city has entered a period of delirium that is different from the one you diagnosed in the middle ‘70s? How does the city look different in the early decades of the 21st Century as opposed to the terminal decades of the 20th?

RK:           I wish you didn’t ask. But basically, I wrote two things about New York. One was Delirious New York, and the other was a piece for Wired called “Delirious No More,” to kind of talk about the effort to launder the city, to clean up and kind of remove some of its urban unpredictability. That was obviously, for me, not a great period. I think it is too early to tell now, but these billionaire needles have the possibility to collectively lift the level of imagination, or they are really the last and most extreme effort to scrape every little bit of advantage from the existing situation.

DG:          I’d like to say something about it from the context from which we work in Hong Kong. If you would simply compare New York and Hong Kong. The question is asked whether the billionaire needle in New York is trying to go too far. If you look what the circumstances are in Hong Kong, the thin and tall towers have been there since the ‘70s. The center of Hong Kong really began developing in the late ‘70s when the MTR came into the city. It became a typology of its own that supports a very big part of the city. I am not sure if the things that are happening in New York that will not have a surprising outcome. Perhaps in 20 years it will creating a totally different environment at different levels of the city. Maybe New York is capable of accepting the typology and not making it only exclusive, and the buildings can deliver something that makes the plane more three-dimensional, and makes it therefore, much more interesting. From the perspective of Hong Kong, that’s how we see it.

RK:           I totally agree, and like I said before, it’s too early to tell. A lot of the high-rise needles in Hoong Kong are public housing. The chance that you would get a new kind of Peter Stuyvesant Village going now is, I would estimate, about zero percent. But eventually it could happen.

DG:          Even when bridges exist between buildings at 8 or 13 stories, let alone 50 or 90, that brings along a vibrancy that you almost cannot imagine.

DS:           In an entrance interview, I think the statement that got me into architecture school was citing your prior career as a journalist. That is also my background. What effect has your experience as a journalist and filmmaker had on your architecture and your way of seeing?

RK:           I think that journalism has become very important in that simply, in that, journalism is nothing but the professionalization of curiosity. And so that has basically driven a lot of the research and also the design. Cinematically, anyone who is involved in cinema thinks about movement, I think that is also a feature of architecture.

DG:          The way you look at and start a project is very much based on similar principles. Instead of looking for a shape, per se, instead you are trying to figure out something. Then you build a composition based on what you found – often in a different way than the immediate expectation would be.

RK:           Do you know the story of the MTCC building here? There are all these kind of Mies buildings on the west side, then there is the elevated, then there are all kinds of dorms. The campus was in danger of being depopulated, because Miesian architecture is not very popular or easy to understand. They needed a student center to sort of proclaim their modernity. Of course, it was a competition, and it was meant to be close to Crown Hall.

But we decided to look at circulations that were established, and put the building in a place where all the circulations on campus intersected. That is what you are saying. It is not so much a plot or a script, as it is a building. We were violating the grid but also reasserting it.

It Giveth and It Taketh Away

In the world of glossy architecture books, words seldom provide more clarity than pictures, but there are a few takeaways from perusing the text of Devon: The Story of a Civic Landmark, the chronicle of the design and execution of the Devon Energy Center in Oklahoma City. One clear conclusion that we’re to take away is that the building is a “gift to the city,” as Devon CEO Larry Nichols characterizes it, an immodest if not untrue phrase that is repeated several times in the limited text. Another is that is a product of both “a singular vision” (Nichols’) and a “collaborative effort” (of architect Packard Chilton, client, and other consultants).

The 257-meter faceted glass tower, completed in 2012, stands as a symbol of both “The American rugged individual” and as a “civic landmark” that works at human scale on the ground while offering “egalitarian views” to its occupants, which, in their expansiveness, have actually reduced employee fatigue. Devon Energy Center has “changed the culture of Devon Energy” and filled OK Citians with pride, Crosbie writes. That’s a lot to put on one building, but considering what has been built in Oklahoma City to date, a building of this scale, set smack in the center of a wide, flat boom-and-bust town without much urban grain in the first place, does bear that responsibility—and it’s refreshing to see that it was valued, attempted, and largely successful.

Though much is made of the generous, glassy ground-level experience, which features a café, auditorium, public rotunda as mixing chamber, and its relationship with the greenhouses of the Myriad Botanical Garden across the street, a previous attempt to inject some worldly culture into this Petropolis is distinctly omitted from the design narrative.

It is not until page 171 - literally on the margins of the book - that we catch a glimpse of The Stage Center, the brutalist John Johansen-designed theatrical complex that won an AIA Design Award in 1972, looking like a discarded pile of Tinker Toys, awaiting its demolition to make way for OGE Tower, another energy company headquarters, right across the street. No reference is made to it whatsoever.

The fact that Oklahoma City is now re-discovering its urbanity through the gift of the Devon Energy Center, at the same time it allows what might be its singular avant-garde structure to be annihilated, places an even greater responsibility on the corporate office tower replacing it to be even more publicly-minded. Here’s hoping no one in OKC is holding their breath for the next “gift.”