Monday, November 15, 2010

Ten Things I May Have Learned Today

 Mayors discussing urbanism on 11/15/10 at the Villa Galilee in Zefat, Israel.

Today I was not so much a traveler as a listener (and sometimes contributor). For close to twelve hours I was immersed in the first of two days of discussions regarding development, redevelopment, urban design, planning, financing, branding, transit and traffic planning, affordable housing, and the politics of city design - in Israel. While I was asked my opinion of the four city schemes we were presented, my opportunity was to listen and learn about how a very different urban environmental design culture works, or in some cases does not.

Here are ten unformed observations in no particular order or hierarchy.
  1. There is a 100% tariff on new cars imported into Israel. Not surprisingly there are at present one-third the cars per capita as there are in the United States, yet I am told that government policies push development out to the periphery of the country where there is poor transit service; thus encouraging more car ownership and the consequences of ever more sprawl.

  2. Countering the prospects for future sprawl, Israel is building both trains and light-rail systems. Bus rapid transit is also being adopted. I observed and heard about bus-only lanes in the middle of roads and through the center of cities respectively. Jitneys are also a popular form of transit. I saw, while stuck in a traffic jam, police stop a 10-person jitney for utilizing an empty bus-only lane. I guess jitneys are not yet recognized as mass transit. Policies that relate urban form to transit are chaotic, with simultaneous expansion of all system types, including the single-occupant vehicle, and little rigor with regard to the niceties of transit-oriented development or the location of station stops. Still, with all this transit construction, the country is aggressively anticipating the realization of a "multi-modal" future.

  3. Israel fosters for better and for worse "towers in a park" suburbanism. I saw several examples of new project proposals replete with towers, unprogarmmed green swaths, cul-de-sacs, and island-like urban definition where nothing was connected to nothing.

  4. There is no tax increment financing, local redevelopment agencies, complex financial tools, or even a great deal of awareness of the complex real estate mechanisms that are at the root of American development practices. On the other hand, the mortgage market did not collapse here and there are cranes and development expectations everywhere.

  5. Housing in Tel Aviv is phenomenally expensive. But, outside of a couple of pockets scattered elsewhere, housing is often cheap, encouraging further disbursement of urbanism into a diminishing countryside. "Affordable" housing as practiced in the United States, with all of its its incentives, subsidies, financing mechanisms, and types, is little known here.

  6. People get nervous as opposed to excited about the art of the deal as practiced by captains of American real estate development like Donald Trump. Deals quickly become moral dilemmas as much as development dilemmas. Maybe that is a good thing.

  7. Sustainability is not quite the impulse, fad, or framework that is familiar to those that design and develop in California. However, its coming. Israel will probably wean itself from foreign oil long before the United States. On a small scale, I saw Platanus Racemosa (California Sycamore) street trees being utilized because of their drought resistance (and lovely deciduous canopy), flipping on its head for me the notion of the definition of Mediterranean landscape.

  8. There are fewer checks and balances to the development process as much of it is top down, from the central government to the local jurisdiction, with little or cursory input and participation into decision-making. On the other hand, centralized planning is a good thing when you think it is good for you (and a bad thing when you are convinced it is not).

  9. The design of Israel, if you will, is still influenced by the legacy of the socialist founders and governments, left and right, that shape urban and development policy to this day. Another way of saying it is that they are designing their country and are even at times critical of its design. I am not sure anybody is as actively designing or at the top levels actively criticizing the design of the United States.

  10. Religious people, religious neighborhoods, and design for minorities are delicately spoken factors influencing the shaping of urban growth as well as urban form expectations. In some ways this is akin to working with equivalent communities in the United States, but there is much less confidence that outcomes can be salutary.
Outside of the city centers, and utilizing the above assumptions, Israelis have adopted a type of car-oriented sprawl that is perhaps a bit too formless given the uniqueness of this environment. Of course, one can not forget that one sees this type of environment aspired to all around the globe. The whole purpose of conferences such as these is to reveal our assumptions and then aspire to something more specific.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Good City Form Versus The Daily News

Khán-i-'Avámid, also known as the Inn of the Columns was built in 1784 when Akko, Israel was under the rule by  of the Ottoman Empire. Does this architecture bear the moral failings of its political times or is it an artifact of typology that transcends temporal concerns?

I am lucky enough to be attending, as a "resource team" member, the second Israeli Mayor's Institute on City Revitalization. Based upon a similar program developed two decades ago in the United States by the National Endowment for the Arts, the program brings together Mayors who have a design, development, or environmental design challenge, with experts in a broad range of environmental design fields, from real estate economics, to affordable housing, to urban design and architecture.

During the conference, each Mayor is given approximately an hour and one-half to present their challenge and receive immediate input and response from both the experts and their fellow mayors. One could think of it as a type of city design "pecha kucha" with feedback. I have attended three of these sessions in the United States and always been impressed with how seriously the Mayor's present their cases, listen, and much work is accomplished.

In the United States their is a long tradition of presenting and listening and considering in the course of the city design process. This planning tradition, while not unique in the United States, and not always perfect for sure, is at this point an export service that people in other lands, including Israel, are curious about. Does it translate? How does it need to be modified to meet a different culture with different constraints and opportunities and expectations? One of my main interests in participating in this conference here is Zefat is to garner some insights into these questions. Our first session here in Zefat certainly made me think.

When you put nine mayors of Israeli city's in a room and ask them to each briefly introduce and present the vision of their city, they, like mayor's in the United States, with great pride tell you about the growth patterns, the beautiful settings and opportunities, the reasons their towns are attractive to business, etc. I certainly learn a lot about places I have either never been to or only have spent an afternoon in. For instance, on our drive to Zefat, my hosts were kind enough to take me to four of the eight cities that are the subject of this conference and show me first hand the settings that are the subjects of our session. While touching and feeling a place is priceless when you are about to make recommendations, hearing a city described by it's mayor has no equal when you are trying to appreciate the context.

Through the first eight presentations here in Zefat, all was quite familiar, at least as regards the form of the conversation. Each Mayor would present their materials, typically with more emphasis on the opportunities they were developing than the challenges they were facing. Then, in our case, the mayor of our host city was given the opportunity to both welcome fellow mayors and tell us all a bit about the town we are ensconced in on a mountain top.

Zefat, is a religious city where Rabbi's, mystics, and the faithful have come for centuries. It is also a tourist town set in the mountains overlooking the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. Pre-1948, the town contained a large Arab population which fled during bitter fighting upon the declaration of Israeli independence.

The Mayor of this city was describing some of its challenges, which include moving a growing university. He also described how he spent much of his time trying to calm tensions between Jewish and Arab students and stresses between the religious people who live in the city and these same students. I am being purposely vague here because I heard all of this through translation and know I do not know the beginnings of what is a very complex situation with cultural and social dimensions beyond my present understandings.

Instead, what I can describe is what I observed, a quick shift in the conversation from the dynamics of city design to its nexus with spatial politics. Should the University be placed outside of town as a means to remove the tensions? Should Israeli Mayor's get more support from the regional and national governments to address these types of contestable issues? Is the national government paying too much attention to addressing these issues at the international level and not attending to the facts on the ground? The conversation quickly heated up, ever sharper points of view were exchanged, and a discussion about city design was all of a sudden a discussion, from this American's point of view, about the Middle East - in real time, in real place, in reality.

Our facilitator, Dror Gershon, the director of the Israeli Movement for Urbanism, did a wonderful job trying to keep everybody on topic. But still, social and ethnic tensions are ever present just beneath the surface. At one point towards the end of he conversation he turned to me, and said John, "do you have anything to say?" Talk about being put on the spot. I suggested that good city form has been created throughout history by both the most democratic societies and the most oppressive societies. I further stated that while there would always be a clear nexus between the form of the city and discussions of equality, morality, and politics, it was possible to discuss means of improving cities and good city form independent of politics. Or is it I wondered, even as I spoke.

While speaking I was reminding myself of two mentors; one from books and one a teacher. Aldo Rossi, in the "Architecture of the City", discusses cities as built artifacts through which uses, memories, and lives flow across time. One day a building is a prison, the next it is a school. Everyday it is a building, and in that sense at least has a type of autonomy that transcends the present, embodies memories, and teaches lessons the architect must learn from. My teacher, the architectural historian Vincent Scully, in response to my youthful insistence that architecture had a moral dimension, gently chided me saying that people are guilty, architecture is innocent. From both of these points of view one can separate the political and moral dilemmas of a Mayor in Israel from essential principles of good city form.

Still, a part of me believes that a city is also the accumulation of thousands of individual decisions, and each of these do have moral dimensions. Clearly, mayor's in Israel, indeed mayor's everywhere, can not and do not make decisions about the design of the environment in social and political vacuums. Here in Israel, the liquid surface of environmental urban design is immediately rippled by the currents of the daily news, and creating cities is not easily separated from the tensions of nation building.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

It's The Scale Stupid

A storefront seen in Tel Aviv, Israel after an eighteen hour flight  on 11/13/10. The level of detail established by recessed entry, illuminated sidewalk, street side decor, and lighting, creates a sense of rich and vital texture. The first impression of this city; human-scale and vital intricacy is everywhere present.

In my very first (and as it turned out only) job interview upon graduating from architecture school, the Associate Dean of a college of architecture asked me what I thought of my possible future home, Houston, Texas. This was a trap of a question on many counts. How can one answer it correctly when I had been off the plane for all of two hours? At that point my knowledge of Houston was confined to the view of the City seen from the back seat of a taxi zipping from the airport to a hotel. The question was clearly a trap. In those days, and even today, the view from the freeway is a view of giant billboards, traffic, big steamy sky and a surreal skyline jutting above planes. You never experience anything that remotely resembles a traditional town. This type of urban experience was not and is not what most people strive to create. I certainly had not been taught to appreciate this schema of things in graduate school. However, my first impression was that I liked it. The Associate Dean had a perverse sense of urban humor as well. We ho it off. I got the job and the rest is as they say history.

As a traveler, first impressions are about all you have, and your sense of good and bad is pretty instinctual and pure. You either get it and like the place you have just arrived at or you don't. Part of the adventure of travel is the freedom to form these types of often uninformed and off-the-cuff  judgments. However, there is usually a thread of truth in them. Understanding more clearly this thread provides a richer clue as to why you might return a second time.

In the case of Tel Aviv, I am just hours into my second visit, and this journey started much like the first. I arrived after dark at the airport, was met by a freind, driven to my hotel, took a shower, and then was taken on a long looping night walk (with dinner) about the city. If the first time I marveled at the 1930's architecture, the street life, and the paving details, as well as the cultural sophistication of the place, this time I realized that it was the scale that makes this place so unique. The original planners and designers in the early to mid-twentieth century seem to have stumbled on some magic formula of width, depth, height, massing, bulk, transparency, open space, boulevard versus street, etc. that is just about perfect in generating a joyful sidewalk-oriented and vibrant urbanism.

There are many places in the world where you see this type of organic street life where there is a mysterious fit between the activity of the street and the size and scope of the supporting buildings but few, and none that I can recall off the top of my head, were as consciously planned as Tel Aviv. In the coming days I hope to get out on the streets of this city and experience this scale in a bit more depth and understand it as both impressionistic experience and formula. First impressions matter; here in Tel Aviv its the scale stupid.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Substantive Design Man: John Leighton Chase, 1953 - 2010

John Chase in 2008 on a tour of South LA.

John Chase, best known to many as urban designer for the City of West Hollywood for the past 14 years – even as he was recorder of all things architectural throughout Los Angeles – passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on Friday, Aug. 13. Over the next few weeks and months I will be re-reading his many articles, essays, and books not only to keep alive his memory but to remind myself of his vivacious and educative voice, which was at once keen, enthusiastic, insightful, humorous, sardonic, always observant, attentive to his audience (whether it was a crowd or just an individual), and loving.

John Chase grew up in South Pasadena and as a consequence had a head start in understanding the Southland and all things L.A. – and I mean all things. Over the course of 30 years he not only developed expertise in the canonical histories of design and planning in this region, he expanded this envelope to include architectural types and urban experiences that remain invisible to too many practitioners and academics. John’s important early book, Exterior Decoration: Hollywood’s Inside-Out Houses, explored the dynamics of what much later came to be called queer space. A later essay, The Giant Revolving (Winking) Chicken Head and the Doggie Drinking Fountain: Making Small Distinctive Public Spaces on Private Land by Using Commonplace Objects synchronized Jane Jacobs urbanism with contemporary forms of street culture. In Glitter Stucco and Dumpster Diving: reflections on building production in the vernacular city, John expanded his reach to include dingbats, six-packs and all aspects of Los Angeles’s everyday topos. Most recently, with James Rojas, he explored the influence of Latino culture on the transformation of public and private space in The Painted Sign Pictures of Latino Los Angeles.

John was able to expound upon all of these subjects because he was a Los Angeles flaneur without equal. But John was also a practicing architect who embedded his love of this city’s traditions in startlingly knowing forms. Like his writing, his built work exulted in fascination with the specific identity, signs, and symbols of place. His buildings were designed like explanatory essays and like him, they loved to explicate in beautifully wrought detail that dripped with wit, flow, and double entendre. His Jacobs studio project of 1988, a revisioning of the classic American bungalow, was widely published and it demonstrated well that one could realize a fascinating contemporary form within the guise of the history of architecture.

When John gave up his design practice and joined the City of West Hollywood as its first urban designer, I was at first surprised given how much joy he took in the design of individual objects. But his was a natural progression for someone who wanted to work on a larger stage, was acutely political in all of his viewpoints – design or otherwise – and deeply identified with the movement of neighborhoods, gays and lesbians, small business owners, recent immigrants, and others that culminated in the founding of this city. Here he could seek to influence the form of a city through the nudging of multitudinous and incremental acts of architecture. John mustered his architectural skills, his vast knowledge of Los Angeles environmental design, his capacity to write, his joy of design debate, and his passion for libratory democratic politics to become a consummate professional advocate for what Kevin Lynch described as the “good city” - in this case the good city of West Hollywood.

The City of West Hollywood has gone through a remarkable transformation since its founding 25 years ago. The redesign of Santa Monica Boulevard, the creation of numerous small parks, the implementation of the Sunset Specific Plan (which John initially advocated for and influenced as a citizen volunteer), the construction of the new library, and this town’s steady emphasis on design excellence and creativity in each new act of building all bear the imprint of John’s daily efforts and design intelligence. Yet John would have been the first to acknowledge that urban design is teamwork. John loved, though admittedly could also be frustrated by, the intricacies of working with an evolving cast of planners, politicians, and architects to create a more beautiful and sustainable West Hollywood.

During the course of his years at the city, John never gave up writing, lecturing, befriending, mentoring, and cajoling others to recognize the potential of design to bring people together through infinite acts, at times infinitesimally small acts, of everyday beauty. He was a motivating force behind the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, a board member of the fledgling Architecture and Design Museum Los Angeles, a board member of the Westside Urban Forum, a steady long time co-chair of the American Institute of Architects Urban Design Committee, and an organizer of countless symposiums, lectures, and tours. John was at the center of design thinking in Los Angeles. Everybody knew him, everybody turned to him, everybody wanted and needed him to be a part of their Los Angeles design conversation because he was simply the best, the most opinionated, and the most accurate observer of the Los Angeles scene and its making.

On a personal note, I was privileged to work with John as well as Margaret Crawford on writing and editing Everyday Urbanism, first published in 1999 and then republished last year in an expanded version. John was always ready to spend hours looking at mini-malls, Latino wall murals, or the contents of garbage cans, and simultaneously without pause and from the back seat of a car relating these to the writings of de Certeau, Banham, Lynch, Gebhard, Davis; you name it; he was an urban design encyclopedia on two legs. His continuous committment to, no insistence on incorporating the margins of urbanism into the canon of city design widened our scope to include the entire vastness of the everyday city as exemplified in the landscape of Los Angeles. Most importantly he could always feel the everyday as a first inspiration towards the making of a more humane, democratic, responsive, creative, beautiful, and non-doctrinaire urban environment that serves all.

To figure out the full legacy of John Chase and its impact on the Los Angeles design and planning scene would take not only the careful rereading of his published writings but the careful culling of the thousands of memorandums, letters, and emails, he wrote in the course of his daily work. At the very least there should be a quick effort to conserve these for they are an accurate record of the design maturation of Los Angeles from a thousand villages in search of a city to a great city that seeks to preserve its villages.

To resort to a complete cliché, there are a thousand stories in the big city and John had the capacity to appreciate, tell, and even make up all thousand all at once. This is his genius. He was the perfect post-modern man of substance, respecting and balancing the multiplicitous, complex, contradictory, and parallel identities and narratives of Los Angeles’ unique urbanism. The opposite of an essentialist, his was a voice that sought out, celebrated, recorded, and then sought to design the polymorphous and the polycentric.

For 30 years John was at the forefront of showing and telling Los Angeles’ many stories and urbanisms. By holding them all with joy simultaneously in his head, voice, and heart, he was a design leader whose gift was to show, tell, and envision the everyday city where there is a place, a street, and a special home for each of us.

A version of this article first appeared in California Planning and Development Report.