Archive for November, 2008

Oakland: A parallel universe

Monday, November 10th, 2008

Writers often dream up worlds that are very similar to our own but have fundamental differences that shine a light on what’s wrong with ours. Thomas More’s Utopia and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels come to mind.

But I had a chance to visit just such a parallel world this week in California called Oakland.

Oakland has long been San Francisco’s ugly sister derided for its crime and Gertrude Stein determined that there was no there, there.

It is a small city and it has had its share of issues with crime. But there is a great deal of natural beauty, cultural and compelling architecture not to mention some fantastic historic landmarks.

What makes a trip to Oakland revealing is what its urgent desire to create more multifamily housing in the downtown area. There don’t seem to be the debates we have in Seattle about whether we have growth and whether Seattle should accommodate it. Instead former Mayor Jerry Brown developed the 10K Initiative which set as a goal to create 10,000 new units of housing.

Shocking! Imagine a housing agenda with an actual numerical and geographic target. And add to that the fact that the projects that are listed range from subsidized low income housing to large mixed used projects like the one on 23rd and Valdez Street. The amazing and historic Cathedral Building is also being converted to condominiums.

My walking tour of these projects took the better part of a day and some of the projects were completely ugly, others run of the mill and some appeared to really be reaching for new ground in design and function.

The sad thing is the effort may not be working. The flailing economy and the uphill climb to reverse the doughnut effect is creating a high vacancy rate—at least anecdotally. Some locals say they are the ones that should be living in the new units, but Oakland just doesn’t work for them.

So while some in Seattle want to shut the door behind them and keep out new growth, or nickel and dime developers with disconnected housing goals (How many? Where? Why?) Oakland is actually going out of its way to identify under utilized parcels and recruit efforts to build housing on them. I am

sure Oakland wishes it had our problems. And the Lesser Seattle folks, I’m sure, wish we had theirs.

Say goodbye to “wow” buildings?

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

The sputtering economy and markets might mean more than a shrinking 401(K) and a mortgage at odds with reality.

This Foster design is planned for Moscow

I’m not talking about hunger, job losses or increased poverty: I’m talking about plans to build crazy skyscrapers coming to a halt. Architect David Chipperfield told Bloomberg this week that the global financial crisis will take the wind out of the sails of the “wow” building industry.

Chipperfield said “wow” buildings are a result of an excess that just can’t be counted on to fund such projects anymore. I’m not sure if we’ve really reached that point in places like Dubai and the former Soviet Union where announcements for new record-setting buildings still seem to come in at a pretty good clop.

I do wonder what kind of architecture will spring from the coming decade. Will it be borne of necessity, hinged on frugality, or greased by lots of public dough? What will it look like if it’s all of the above? Will it at least stop getting taller and taller and taller?

What about here? We all know about the staggering number of public projects built in the U.S. during the Great Depression. Some are still “wows,” others might best be categorized as “hows?” Construction on Seattle’s own Viaduct and seawall started in 1934.

AIA Seattle winners and juror comments online

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

Monday night’s AIA Awards were a departure from last year, when the jurors gave four of seven awards to posh private residences and lamented a lack of civic engagement among Seattle firms.

Woodway Residence was the only single family winner this year

This year, there was only one single family award winner. And multifamily infill and public projects dominated the winners.

Some local firms cleaned up. Weinstein A/U lugged home three awards, two of them Honors. Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, The Miller|Hull Partnership and E. Cobb Architects each took home two.

The jurors scolded some award-winners for not including enough contextual and site information. They applauded AIA Seattle for including actual site tours as part of the decision process. Those tours helped them cut a few projects that had looked good in the pictures but they said didn’t work on site.

Check out detailed descriptions of the 14 winners and read more about why the jury picked them online. Also read threads/comments at Archinect (posted by holz about 3/4 of the way down the thread), BLDG Blog and at AIA Seattle.

Livability means a pedestrian scale

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Frequently in my posts and in opinion pieces I suggest we should organize our thinking about growth as a city into three distinct domains: affordability, livability and sustainability.

I am continuing to think through these domains and defining them in more detail. But when I think of livability the first thing that comes to my mind is pedestrian scale. . . . at 12th and Thomas

If Seattle did one thing to support livability as we work toward accommodating more growth, it would be prioritizing pedestrian travel. The pedestrian would be at the top of the hierarchy followed in descending order by bicycles, scooters, transit, freight, shared vehicles and at the very, very bottom single passenger cars.

Two examples come to mind of what I mean by pedestrian scale and they are at extreme ends of the continuum. The National Mall in Washington D.C. stands out as an example of being out of scale with pedestrian travel. Although it was designed before the rise of the automobile it represents the kind of Brobdingnagian scale that lends itself to cars rather than people. It’s just too damn big.A quiet oasis . . .

At the other end is 12th and Thomas, shown above and at left. A look at these pictures might lead you to think that this is in someone’s back yard or perhaps a park. But the fact that this little oasis is part of a sidewalk near a busy street can teach us something.

Building Seattle as if we had to walk everywhere will make our city more livable. It doesn’t just have to be more sidewalks and gutters.

Instead, humanizing our walkscape means less pavement and more landscaping, less impervious surface and more unpaved amenities. The oasis at 12th and Thomas won’t save the world but you really can’t appreciate it driving by in a car.