MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

Filtering by Tag: urban

Creatives like Cities, Engineers like suburbs
True in office design as well as in urban design

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.

It's a phrase that I somehow picked up in fifth grade or thereabouts and went around repeating it as a mark of erudition without any comprehension. It's a concept, now discredited, that implies that an organism's path from embryo to adult replicates all of its evolutionary forms.

Never mind. It's just that it came to me as I found a reference to a recent study about urban form.

That study found a pattern of differences in the location choices of creative organizations and science-based organizations. Looking at company location data for three of Canada’s largest metropolitan areas, the research showed that creative firms like urban locations and science-based firms like suburban locations.

The data presented show that firms in ‘creative’ industries tend to be located in dense, mixed-use neighborhoods near the city core, while ‘science-based’ industries tend to be concentrated in low-density, single-use neighborhoods in the suburbs.

The differences are actually quite striking across multiple characteristics. 

Urban Suburban
In/near core Near highway interchanges
Historic or older neighborhoods Newer developments
High density Low density
Diverse Similar
Walkable/transit Commute by car
Multiple use Single use
Diverse Nerdistan
Bars, coffee shops Conference rooms

The authors of the study speculate that communication patterns and characteristics may be at the root of these choices –

It is argued that these spatial patterns are related to the fact that inter-firm networks are more important in the ‘creative’ industries, while ‘science-based’ industries rely more heavily on intra-firm interactions and learning.

What we found interesting from our work is how aligned the choices that these types of organizations make in the design of the workplace are. It also seems not too far of a stretch to also find an alignment in the recent conversation about extroverts and introverts. 

The creative organizations we work with seem to like high-density, high-interaction working spaces interspersed with a mix of social and meeting spaces of different characteristics and services. Creative organizations have cultures that are naturally more collaborative and social. For example, creative work includes frequent “pin-ups” where work is openly discussed and evaluated. People tend to be more extroverted.

Engineering or science organizations seem to have cultures that are mostly introverted. Innovative work at these organizations has traditionally been individually authored and created in isolated or closed spaces intended to preserve focus for writing or for work on critical calculations. The engineering organizations we work with seem to cling to a hierarchical distribution of larger offices and formal conference rooms with closed service areas where one can get a cup of coffee but rarely stay to converse. 

It appears that perhaps at every scale – from office to neighborhood to city to region – the characteristics of organizational cultures derived from communications patterns define the form of the places they choose or develop to do their work.

Here, too.

4. Urban agriculture

I’m borrowing the 10 things concept to build an agenda of thinking for the next couple of months – my New Year’s resolutions, of sorts. Over the next few days, we’ll roll out one or two of these ideas in the hope that you’ll find something of common interest and choose to join the conversation…or even commission a study!

Okay, where were we? Oh, yeah...

Urban agriculture

I think I am irritating others by being irritated by this subject. It’s a matter I am addressing without, frankly, knowing much about it. I am trying to get into the conversation, nonetheless, because I fear it is moving too fast, without challenge, in places where a broader and deeper discussion ought to be taking place.

How is this a redesign problem? I think it enters our agenda because the prominence of the term in the press seems to potentially have the power of beginning to influence land use policies and therefore the design of our cities. From what I am seeing, urban agriculture is embraced to put a pretty label on a failure of leadership.

In my backyard, “urban agriculture” is

  • An obscuring cover for the urban impacts of a failure to provide a sustainable jobs and a decent environment for people – it clothes individual acts of survival (a hen house) with an impression of intentional innovation and institutional sanction (urban agriculture) and has a very limited definition of sustainability (what about supply chain integration and stability, for example)
  • It provides the opportunity for wealthy to acquire property lost by those who lost jobs in the collapse of American industry and the manipulations of financial instruments
  • It is a trendy label for the failure to accept responsibility for the infrastructure you steward as municipal governors, and failure to spend the creative energy to generate a vision and a plan to repopulate, and instead accept the concept of “shrinking city” as a “trend” itself

Making working visible

making-work-visible_1791_002 There are at least two levels of invisibility in my town, two layers of its cross-section where you have to struggle to find signs of life. There is an upper layer-the anonymous and blank windows of the high rise office towers-and a lower layer-empty retail shops and lobbies reflecting the level of occupancy of the floors rising above them.

Colleagues are now in the midst of the periodic ritual of designing infills for empty storefronts in the CBD. The first of these that I remember occurred back in the early eighties. It was a joint venture sponsored by the local architectural professionals and the local artists market. Reasonable successful as a promotional event, artists filled up empty shop windows in the shadows of the GM headquarters, where Saks Fifth Avenue had long served the city and finally pulled up for the suburbs. Their works seemed delightfully in the right place, numbered for reference in the weeks-long auction that took place while they were on view.

In an interim attempt to clean up the city for some event that might draw visitors here from other places, the city commissioned decals for the upper windows of many of the downtown buildings to attempt to convey a sense of life and occupation in the ever declining city. Scenes of curtained windows and table top lamps to be viewed by the "people mover" that cruised the unpopulated city at the second and third floor levels, the program was met with more derision than appreciation, and caused more attention to the reality that it attempted to mask.

More recently, when the Superbowl came to town a couple of years ago, the local architects and contractors teamed up under the auspices of the downtown business association to fill up shopfronts with some form of creative construction. Some baldly promotional and off-purpose, and others only half-heartedly committed, they were left to decay shortly after the event and, as the earlier attempts, contributed to the sense of abandonment.

Another initiative is now in the works. As I watch colleagues prepare their submission, I have too much memory of the past to become enthusiastic and supportive of the present, already seeing the future.

But their work got me thinking. I propose an inversion of the city's cross section, or at least a partial inversion. I want to make work-that is, working- visible. What is up should come down, what is down should become real.

The abandonment of storefronts in the city is caused by the fact that the offices above them are so lightly occupied that the market for the amount of retail space in the city is unsustainable. Preservation of these spaces as "storefronts" under a fantasy of retail restoration only perpetuates, maybe accelerates, decay.

Upstairs, invisible to the world, are the remnants of corporations, professional firms, and others who have maintained their place in the city. Who they are and what they do and how they contribute and why they are here-is invisible. These are lonely places. Nobody shares an elevator with you. Walking the halls stirs uneasiness, wondering who else might be there who should not be there and wondering why you are. We squeeze in under low ceilings and look out of small windows from ever-shrinking space.

I want to move downstairs. I want to be in expansive spaces with high ceilings. I want to be in light filled spaces where high windows bring sunlight deep into the interior. I want to have a reason to put what I do prominently on display. I want to look out and see people, maybe even greet people, rather than look across to an unoccupied building across the way, or down to the streams of people leaving the city.

So, I propose that landlords reconsider the use of their buildings, that brokers reconsider how they promote space and to whom, and I propose that everybody left upstairs goes downstairs. There just might be enough of us to fill up the ground level of all of our buildings. And if we did we'd have a city that is alive. We would see who is here. We would see the work we all do. We would get to know each other better and probably collaborate with each other more frequently. We'd build energy from our own activity and reinforced by the visible activity of others.

The upper floors of our buildings would remain anonymous and invisible and, for the moment, irrelevant. But the ground floors would be lighted, active, visible, productive, energizing, and more than sustainable.

3/24/9 This just in

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Trying to find momentum

evh98-wire In the meantime...

I remember an early lecture in architecture school about America's "kleenex" culture---the use-once-and-throw-away characteristic of our society. Here's the UN and its membership entry.

Continuing the discussion on what in design is more authentic as the economy changes---democratic ecology, intelligent design, longevity...and the burbs.

So, maybe about 30 years ago, I scribbled some graphic notes in my sketchbook representing sound levels in the city. I was interested in what might give a different topography to the city, and what considerations might generate a different kind of architecture. I was also interested to discover if activity levels correlated with financial speculation. That is, did the architectural topography of place (assumed to be financial) have any relationship with the social (my noise level/graphic equalizer map) topography. Fund to find other explorations.

And I can't remember where this came from, but thanks for the delightful A History of Visual Communications.

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Detroit Wildlife

Florent Tillon has made a video on its way to becoming a movie, about Detroit. He says, "...the vision of Detroit that other people have around the world is more a Mad Max picture than anything else... When I was there this summer, I found something else, really, very far from this reputation : I founded great people, wonderful landscape, and a life rather pleasant, after all..." [vimeo]

more about Detroit Wildlife

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After the Crisis---Macomb interventions

from imdb "Detroit" for the world is a general reference to the American auto industry and currently a subject bringing either contempt or pity from across the country. For people who actually live in the region, "Detroit" is a reference not only to the city, but to a vast area of suburbs surrounding the city and dependent not only on its infrastructure, but its industry.

It is a place of fear and anxiety these days as everybody who still has a job crosses his fingers in hope that the auto companies will do what they need to to sustain the flow of financial support from the federal government that has begun with TARP funds, but needing renewal and expansion after the Obama administration comes into office.

The decline of Detroit has been underway for a generation. I assume that many from outside of the area think of this decay as specific to the city. But the suburbs---communities making up not just adjacent communities but the huge area of three counties surrounding the city of Detroit---are themselves, in their dependency, in decline.

In the relentless negative change taking place in the region, the city has been not an infrequent target of interest and helpful study. It has also been the subject of  dramatic explorations like the unseen EZ Streets, the great 8 Mile and, more recently,  the delicious, Gran Torino.

I find it very interesting that the suburbs are now a subject of international interest and support, apparently as a representative subject of the global  financial crisis.

In late February, the European design magazine, Abitare, and the Netherlands Architecture Institute, together as Archis RSVP, will stage an "intervention" in Macomb County, one of the three counties that make up what we call "Detroit." Wayne County encompasses the city of Detroit, but also includes the Grosse Pointes. Oakland County holds some of the city's richest suburbs and is the home of "Automation Alley" which sees itself as the technological transformation and future of the automotive industry. Macomb County is a diverse set of communities that sits north of the city, beyond the Grosse Pointes with the remnants of the great mansions of the founders of the industry, and the home of many who worked for the industry.

I do not yet know much about Archis and their interventions, but it is interesting to see that Macomb County joins Beirut, Naples, Kabul, Prishtina, and other places of conflict and tension.

More importantly, this as the core value of this attention---

For 75 years, Archis magazine and its predecessors have been investigating the realities of architecture. At first voicing a specific world view and engagement (Catholic traditionalism); later mounting the barricades of equal opportunities for all citizens (and its design consequences); eventually researching the themes and issues that could and should be addressed by architects and architecture, the forces that shape our world and habitat with or without the conscience intervention of professional designers and planners. In doing so the magazine has gradually changed its rationale: not just presenting what happened in the built environment, not just presenting how things were made, not just creating exposure to the people who did it. Rather than asking what, how and by whom, Archis has always asked the ultimate question to the raison d'être of architecture as a medium of culture: Why?

I hope to learn more, and maybe participate, in the intervention...more later, in other words.

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Language as architecture

41wmdtm5ydl_sl500_aa240_In today's NYT Book Review, Justin Davidson writes that Huxtable "demonstrates that she has always pursued her mission with reason, elegance and wisdom. Huxtable’s work remains the gold standard of criticism — and not just the architectural variety — because she brings to the job a rare combination of aesthetic certitude and roving curiosity." In an earlier post, I was struck by the power, now so rarely experienced, of the language of Ada Louise Huxtable.

Cartable culture

As New York real estate dynamics create new social dynamics in neighborhoods, Glenn Collins, writing in the NYT today, asks, "Is charisma cartable?" Bar 6, Buenos Aires

from Argentina's Travel Guide

"But if drinking and dining have always been a movable feast in New York, is charisma cartable? Can the character of everything from venerable pubs to palatial eateries migrate with their names and owners? This portability issue has gained new urgency in a season of economic disarray, when property owners are less willing to extend the leases of even the most beloved old-timers."

Favorite neighborhood bars, losing leases, relocate and hope that the vestiges of place, transported and reinstalled, will draw familiar customers and the character and culture of their original locations. He writes that, "Loyalists can be fickle, and geography perilous."

He references a consultant who says, “you want to transfer a core set of values, so people will make an emotional connection and keep coming. But there’s a need for reinvention as well — new people must sense that this is the place to be.”

In the more barren urban landscape of Detroit, I often wonder if culture is cartable. Or maybe my question and challenge is, can form create culture?

In a recent trip to Argentina, we found a host of great places in Buenos Aires. Bar 6 was one of them.

The interior was a delight. Under an arching wooden canopy with an angular slice of sunlight  were a variety of settings supporting a variety of social opportunities. Much more than a bar, Bar 6 seemed to embody the dynamics of the entire neighborhood.

At mid-day, it was lunch that brought the people. In the early afternoon, the place seemed to catch a diverse clientele, both local and global, enjoying a break from the shopping in the Palermo neighborhood, or just stopping by because it was the local place to be. In the late afternoon, the moms took over the place, strollering in the infants, meeting the schoolkids, chatting with the current generation of young mothers.  By early evening, the commuting dads seemed to arrive to join their wives and kids for a cocktail to end the day and set a stage for dinner. Late in the evening, the hipsters arrived, and the place took on an extraordinarily different dynamic. Throughout it all there was a great sound track, and each of the formal settings--bar stool, couch, club chair, cafe table--supported each constituency.

Was this urban culture at work? Or was this form at work?

I yearn for the replication of this form in Detroit. I yearn for the places and spaces that support a diversity of generations, lifestyles, purposes and activities. I live, instead, in a place of social zoning---coffee places, family places, dinner places, places to explicitly articulate membership in a specific economic class/strata, cruising places, etc.

No place (I know of)  in Detroit is lit except from the narrow, frontal dimension. No place in Detroit offers anything than dark. No place in Detroit offers a diversity of settings. No place in Detroit offers appropriateness for every time of day and every generation. No place in Detroit accommodates more than one race, one generation, one lifestyle, one class, one. Nothing about Detroit is about community, only about conflict.

Does the embedded culture support the design of the place? Can design of place transform a culture? Can design, regardless of place, support community? Who designs Detoit, anyway? Who pays them, and for what? (Sorry!)

Thoroughly modern

From the Detroit Free Press In an excellent post on his blog, Landscape + Urbanism, Jason King recalls his work with an AIA SDAT recently addressing this recurring theme in these posts on the "Detroit dilemma."

The initial report of the team, continuing themes from the 1994 Mayor's Land Use Task Force, is worth a review. It's available on the AIA web site.

"We hope for better will arise from the ashes"

A reason to support the auto companies

One of the reasons frequently cited for the bailout of the American car manufacturers was the strategic, and perhaps nostalgic, role they played/play in national security and defense. Someone asked: Who builds the tanks these days? I don't really know, but here's some of the past. 408478188_cc7a6ee886_ovia things magazine

Utopian visions--building in cornfields

Recently there has been this and this about the disappearing reality of the city. One of the more exquisite programs to come to television, only to die for its quality, was “EZ Streets.” (1996)

Among the most compelling images on the program was in its opening credits (as I remember them). A helicopter shot…circling over a city, one sees a closer and closer vision of devastation as the camera descends to the scene of the core action. At first you see a recognizable urban pattern, but then the camera reveals block after block of urban decay, focusing eventually on blocks of six, or three, or one standing house or building.

This place—the never-recovered city of Detroit after the 1967 riots—featured prominently in this very dark program about civic corruption. Among the most memorable scenes in the series took place in an abandoned (aren’t they all now) Albert Kahn designed factory. A newly-elected, young, first black mayor of the city, standing among the cadence of concrete-capitaled columns, has his family threatened unless he votes for the casino initiative in the city.

I remember, as then-president of Detroit’s AIA chapter, calling Dennis Archer, a new, but not the first, black mayor of the city, to offer the organization’s site-selection and zoning assistance after he threw his support behind a new casino initiative. This was about three years after this scene appeared on “EZ Streets.”

Now, more than ten years later, Detroit’s latest mayor is in jail, one of the three licensed casinos is in bankruptcy, Congress has denied funds for the sustainability of the city-sustaining automobile industry, and the city lacks the funds to demolish the abandoned and progressively collapsing houses I have seen on my drive to work every day for the past decade, that represent the move of more than a million—more than a million!—people from this city in the past generation.

When I was working on the design of the Chrysler Technical Center —the move of the auto maker from Detroit’s Highland Park neighborhood to the suburbs beginning a decade earlier in 1988—we often talked about planning for that which was left behind in the city. One of the more startling images was offered by a Chrysler exec, “We should turn Highland Park into a cornfield,” he said. “Everybody wants to build in a cornfield.”

I think I’ll start planting.

A Vision in the Desert--Sustaining a developing culture

Photos from the New York Times and, from left, Gehry Partners, Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando

Nic Ouroussoff writes in the New York Times today about a new "city of culture" in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. It is a grand vision, still evolving, with major proposed works by Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, and others. Nic focuses on the potential of the development to foster a "new cultural model" for the Middle East. Key in the potential success of this venture is the participation of major Western cultural institutions in more than architecture. It will be essential for these established institutions to make major loans to the new Abu Dhabi centers to establish a foundation for a "complex cultural conversation."

More than a decade ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Abu Dhabi to initiate a project for a new national standards laboratory. Embedded in the program was the logic of a natural sustainable place, even in those early days of our awarenesses. If Abu Dhabi were to grow, for example, a supply of fresh water to this place on the Gulf and at the edge of a desert, would have to be established. The labs could develop technologies for large scale desalination plants, for example, to support a local agricultural transformation.

More fascinating, however, was a social initiative that lay behind the laboratory's program. As in other places in the Arab world, oil wealth was making it possible for the sons of the nation to travel to other places and receive great educations from some of the world's best universities in some of the world's most cosmopolitan and sophisticated places. On graduation, however, they resisted return to a nation that was only now emerging from a tribal Bedouin culture, a nation where most of those who actually worked guest workers from other countries in service jobs, and a nation where there was very little to sustain the challenge, interest and intellect these sons had gained in other places. The national standards lab was part of a vision of the nation's leaders to provide a place with the appropriate scientific infrastructure to attract their sons back to Abu Dhabi where they could apply the knowledge they had gained for the good of the country, and hopefully grow opportunity here for future generations.

Nic's article reflects concerns for the cultural center plans and using buildings as a branding exercise and as marketing commodities. From my past experience, I hope instead that the power of architecture is a valid part of a persistent vision for a more inclusive, connected, and creative society, and part of a wisdom that will embed a more global awareness and participation in places that are now in threat of broadening conflict and cultural, social and economic retreat.