A place needs to be lovable

Charles Marohn asks, “If we’re not going to maintain what we have, then why bother building anything new?”:

It was Steve Mouzon who first told me that a place needed to be lovable, that we only maintain that which we love. I never learned anything about “lovability” in my undergraduate course on concrete structures, and I know of no engineering manual that references it, yet I’ve found Steve’s insight to be an undeniable truth.

I love my house—and have deep respect for the resources that went into building it, as well as the amount of effort it will take to retire my mortgage—and so I maintain it. I don’t wait for concrete to fall apart before patching it. I don’t wait for the siding to rot before repainting it. I don’t wait for the roof to leak before maintaining it. …

Local governments suffer from a dual set of challenges when it comes to maintenance. The first is that most of what we’ve built is not lovable, at least not broadly lovable. The asphalt cul-de-sac has some functional appeal to the people who live on it, but the broader community is not going to demand it be maintained. The same with those DOT-specified streetlights the city purchased in bulk. The plastic park equipment may be sanitized and safe, but even it is unlikely to endear.

For the most part, the Growth Ponzi Scheme has put our cities on a path of quantity over quality. We build a lot of stuff, all of it to a finished state. That stuff then sits and rots—perhaps with some nominal maintenance from time to time—until it falls apart, at which point we put together a huge project to replace it with something new built to a finished state. …

What this means is that nearly all public investments—infrastructure, buildings, parks and other facilities—have a predictable life cycle. Initially they are shiny and new. Then they start to wear, fray, and show signs of decline. Then they start to fail to various degrees, finally followed by either a complete failure or a major reconstruction project (generally using debt financing).

Throughout this process, the public grows used to decline and decay—almost comes to accept it as normal—while the world around us becomes less and less lovable each day. This is, for example, how the richest cities in North America—New York City, San Francisco, Washington D.C.—suffer with escalators on their transit systems out of service for years. These things are not difficult to fix when maintenance is prioritized, but when it’s not, just wait for the next large maintenance bond and fix it all at once. …

This enables the second challenge local governments face, that of low expectations. …

This is part of what I was trying to speak to when I asked, “Who’s responsible for a place like this?

Preserving and embracing distinctiveness

Brandon McGinley writes on the Masters Tournament as a tradition:

If you tune in to CBS at 2 p.m. on the second Sunday of April, you will hear the following introit, delivered by Jim Nantz: “Hello, friends, and welcome to this tradition unlike any other.”

The final round of the Masters Tournament, hosted with meticulous precision by the Augusta National Golf Club, is held every year on that day. The veteran sportscaster’s greeting is one of the few tournament traditions not scripted by the club—though I have no doubt it is appreciated, since it captures the notions of heritage and distinctiveness that have made the Masters the signature golf event of the year.

Augusta National has long been an anachronism… The club polices speech jealously. It is said that at least two established broadcasters have been banned for life for verbal slip-ups: One referred to the patrons as a “mob,” and the other—take a deep breath—said that the perfectly manicured greens had been “bikini-waxed.” This year, club security has been ordered to remove any patron who shouts the popular Bud Light slogan “dilly dilly.”

But these regulations are not arbitrary: They are designed to preserve the mystique of the club as an Eden set apart from the vicissitudes of the world. At the Masters, there is no opioid crisis, no gun-control issue, no Donald Trump, no cultural and political decline. The only ads you will see on the television broadcast are for hand-picked, blue-chip companies more stable than most national governments: IBM, AT&T, and Mercedes-Benz. You won’t even see promos for other CBS programs, and so you won’t be reminded of the existence of Celebrity Big Brother.

Augusta National has used its cultural (and financial) capital to carve out a niche for itself to be itself, on its own terms. Not only does the club achieve something close to perfect consistency in what it controls directly, such as the appearance and condition of the golf course; it also controls the public’s interface with the club by controlling the intermediaries. If a broadcaster violates the rules, he will not be invited back. If CBS does not do its part to enforce the rules, it will not be invited back. The club insists on signing only year-to-year contracts with the network, so as to ensure its compliance.

By preserving and embracing its distinctiveness, Augusta National has thrived. This is a startling achievement in a society that finds security in featureless and easily comprehensible cultural landscapes, and consequently seeks to smooth anything too complex and particular into a barely distinguishable example of a type: just another sporting event; just another television broadcast; just another weekend distraction. …

People don’t make quasi-spiritual pilgrimages to just another championship golf course. They treat Augusta National as special because it has made a massive effort to demonstrate that it is special.

By preserving and embracing its distinctiveness, Augusta National has thrived…” There’s an evergreen lesson about authenticity in this, for people, places, and things interested in being precisely what they are.

Clever Georgetown mural

I’ve written about the value of murals as both public art and as “creative responses to failure.” That is, the physical space for so many murals is a result of a failure of architecture in terms of the existence of “dead” spaces between buildings, or disappeared adjacent buildings, or whatever. Great murals serve not only as forms of public art, but they also stitch some of the aesthetic fabric of our public spaces back together. A great example of this stitching-back-together can be found in Georgetown at N and Wisconsin:

There’s this low-slung little one story vanilla-yellow building, an unoccupied former restaurant where nothing’s been happening since at least September. And there’s this incredible exposed brick wall that towers above the little corner place. Its owners are approaching ownership in the classical sense, recognizing that their property doesn’t justify itself solely by fulfilling bureaucratic minima like filing taxes papers or occupancy certificates, but rather that one has a responsibly to enliven one’s place and, as much as possible, contribute to a sense of harmony in daily life.

Simply, but powerfully, it succeeds. It turns that large blank wall not into a place either for an advertisement or for a loud and bombastic mural that draws a purposeless attention to itself. Rather, with its simple painted windows it acknowledges that such spaces should rightly have such windows. And not just glass orifices in a utilitarian sense, but true windows as places for looking out, with sills where living plants might root themselves. And most importantly, an interested woman and her dog peer out at passersby, as the New Yorkers of Jane Jacobs’s day did in contributing to the life and character and safety of a neighborhood in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and in some way that painted woman reminds one of the sort of neighborhood life we can have again, if we choose to—a life where we know and care about the place we live enough to make it beautiful, and nurture it as a place worth living.

Marcinello

Andrew Chamings writes in The Bold Italic on Marcinello, a thankfully failed project to transform the wilds of the Marin Headlands just north of San Francisco into a 1960s suburbia. Here are the Marin Headlands with San Francisco just visible, from Flickr with a Creative Commons license:

In the 1960s, when the suburbs were taking over America, a keen real estate developer from Pittsburgh, Thomas Frouge, dreamed about building a city on top of the Marin Headlands—Marincello.

His vision: a city rising from the slopes of the Tennessee Valley, where residents could gaze across the shimmering water, past the Golden Gate Bridge and on to San Francisco. Frouge described the headlands as “the most beautiful location in the United States for a new community.”

But thanks to some persistent conservationalists, red tape and shoddy planning, that vision never came to life—and those rocky headlands just north of the bridge remain a natural haven. The open hilltops and ridges are still cloaked in coastal shrub. The flowing, open natural landscape is one of the most frequented tourist attractions in Northern California. …

In 1972 the land was sold to the Nature Conservancy for $6.5 million, and the area soon became part of the newly formed Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

I’d rate running through the Marin Headlands and experiencing that natural landscape for an afternoon as probably one of the best experiences of my life. San Francisco can fix its population probably by fixing its zoning and density problems.

What places promise, and what they evoke

Aaron Renn writes on civic branding, but also on themes of promise, authenticity, and looking to the future with a real awarenesses of one’s past:

At its most basic, a brand is a promise. Branding, by extension, is the act of managing that promise. Branding is a management practice.

This deceptively simple statement is actually quite powerful. For example, when you make a promise, you promise something to someone. You don’t promise everything to everybody. You commit to delivering something specific. If you want your promise to have value, it has to be something at least relatively distinctive, something that everybody else isn’t already promising the other person. And when you make a promise, you have to keep it or else suffer a huge loss of credibility. …

Cities are not start ups. They already have residents, businesses, a history, a culture, a set of values—a brand, if you will. The attempt to radically shift a city from its existing brand to something else will appear inauthentic and fail. It will also send a subtle message to existing residents that there is no place for them in the future—that they are of less value than a new class of people the city wants to attract.

So in addition to being distinct, brands need to be authentic. They need to speak to the people who already live in a city as well as to potential newcomers. They need to be an expression or a reflection of the history, heritage, and reality that already exist. To be sure, a city’s reality needs to continue to grow and evolve, and, at times, corporate brands need to be reinvented. But successful reinventions and evolutions generally try to stay true to the authentic core of the brand.

This is even true in the fashion industry. When fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld revived Chanel in the early 1980s, he did so by drawing on inspiration from the firm’s archives. This became a model that others followed. As the New York Times stated, “Lagerfeld’s wildly successful echoing of Chanel’s history has become the blueprint for labels across the world. Today, designers use archival styles to anchor their individual aesthetics to a brand’s past.” By contrast, “New Coke” was one of the great rebranding flops in history. Coca-Cola is as American as apple pie. Changing such an iconic product was a betrayal of its brand promise. The company swiftly backtracked.

In short, cities too often have decided that they need to replace their existing brand to copy another’s that they think is necessary in order to compete. This typically fails because a brand needs to promise something distinct. Harvard business professor Michael Porter puts it thus: “Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.”

There’s nothing wrong with having bike lanes or coffee shops. But today, these things aren’t going to sell a city to businesses or potential residents.

The Dos and Don’ts of Civic Branding” is worth a read if any of this is compelling.

Loving a place

I think the Nittany Valley is a remarkable place, home to not only to Penn State, but also to special communities like State College, victorian Bellefonte, and scenic Lemont, the hamlet at Mount Nittany’s base. Michael Houtz, by the way, captured the heart of the Nittany Valley beautifully a few years ago in this early morning, fog-blanketed valley scene:

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I’ve developed a love affair with the Nittany Valley, but I’m not from there—I’m from Bucks County, near Philadelphia. The two places share some similar characteristics: historic in their own ways, filled with farms and woodlands and rivers. But Bucks County has changed dramatically since I was a child. Its population has exploded in a suburbanized, sub-division way at the expense of many beauty places. Today in Bucks County there are 1,034 people per square mile. In Centre County there are 138 people per square mile.

When I wrote Conserving Mount Nittany, one lesson was that conservation only works if people are prepared mentally and financially and communally to protect what they love. It’s why we protected Mount Nittany, but lost Hort Woods.

Too many of the farms, fields, and quiet places of the Bucks County of my youth have gone missing. I’m glad that, even as Centre County’s population grows, it remains a comparatively homelike place to capture some of the spirit of a different time among the old farms north of Philadelphia.

This is one of the reasons I think nostalgia lives in places like State College.

Notre Dame’s new (old) neighborhood

Since Sunday was our rest day at Notre Dame, during an otherwise intensive Vita Institute, I left my room at Ryan Hall and hopped onto a nearby Limebike for a ride down to Eddy Commons for lunch.

I’ve been to Eddy Commons a number of times before; it’s a compact “downtown” in miniature adjacent to Notre Dame’s campus that was built something like a decade ago. But on this bike ride, I pushed past that compact downtown area and discovered an incredible, growing neighborhood behind it. I rode through it for about an hour taking the photos below, and generally admiring the aesthetics, the walkability, and just how pre-World War II and traditional the entire neighborhood is.

At one point I rode past a guy who had pulled over to retrieve his mail from the neighborhood’s mailboxes, and he explained that the whole neighborhood had been transformed starting about a decade ago into what it is now: a place with intentionally and appropriately narrow streets, a place made for walking or biking just as much as driving, a place where mail is delivered not to each house but to one set of mailboxes, a place where (as a result) neighbors have the chance to bump into one another and catch up, a place where every home has a porch of some size to encourage community feeling and create spaces for gathering and resting, a place where garages are accessible only by alleys running behind the homes rather than facing the primary streets, etc.

Later I looked this neighborhood up and discovered the vision and history behind it:

The Northeast Neighborhood (NEN) of South Bend is located immediately south of campus at the University’s “front door.” While the NEN historically offered both desirable housing and a variety of commercial businesses, the neighborhood deteriorated badly over a period of decades. Family homes were converted to student rental properties as families moved out and there were no buyers to take their place; the housing stock deteriorated and housing values declined, and commercial businesses closed down or moved away.

In 2000, the University of Notre Dame joined with four other area institutions – the City of South Bend, Memorial Hospital, St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, and (later) the South Bend Clinic – to form the Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization (NNRO). Working collaboratively with the Northeast Neighborhood Council (NENC) and area residents, the NNRO organized and funded a comprehensive redevelopment plan featuring five residential and two commercial zones, and created a set of comprehensive redevelopment guidelines. This plan laid the foundation for Eddy Street Commons, the Notre Dame Avenue Housing Program (NDAHP), and The Triangle Residential District.

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The Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization (NNRO) is the sponsor of The Triangle Residential District in the area bounded by Eddy Street Commons on the north, Eddy Street on the west, and South Bend Avenue on the south and east.  The Triangle offers buildable lots for owner-occupied, single-family detached residences, with 70% of the lots available to market-rate buyers and 30% of the lots reserved for Affordable Housing buyers.  The homes must be designed and constructed according to guidelines established by the NNRO.  While these guidelines require that new homes honor traditional architectural principles, they still allow for a great deal of individuality.

Aren’t the benefits of a neighborhood like this clear? Why aren’t we building more of these, everywhere? These are the sorts of suburbs worth having, where there is space for everyone, but not so much distance that encountering your neighbors (or even family members) becomes basically the exception rather than the norm. These are the sorts of neighborhoods that continue to make places just outside of Philadelphia across the historic Main Line communities like Narberth and Ardmore and Wynnewood and Bryn Mawr still so desirable.

Stability and specialness of place

K.E. Colombini on the impermanence of place:

When I was young, I had a recurring dream. I’d be walking home from grade school—it was a walk of only a few blocks—and I’d pass the house that sat next-door to mine on the school side. I expected to see my home beyond the neighbors’ tall hedge, but it wasn’t there. My home had ceased to exist.

It was only a dream. But as I think about places in which I’ve spent periods of my life, I do sense a disturbing trend. The hospital outside Sacramento where I was born is gone, replaced by a tidy subdivision. My elementary school is no longer an elementary school, and my junior high school is no longer a junior high school. In a few years, my high school will move to a new location. My college dorms and classrooms have been torn down and rebuilt.

The small newspaper chain at which I held my first real job was bought out by its daily metro competitor, and the office in which I worked is now an auto-parts store. Even that metro paper has moved to a new, less expensive location. Another paper for which I worked has since closed, and its building, celebrated as technologically advanced when it was built in the 1960s, was torn down—ostensibly for a grander development, which has yet to appear more than a decade later. A Fortune 500 company for which I later worked, a company with a long and proud American lineage, has since been taken over by foreign interests that swept in, ransacked, and restructured the office and its culture. Only the governmental offices that employed me, such as the State Capitol, seem resistant to change—for good or for ill.

Our throwaway culture has come to include entire buildings. Everywhere one looks, one senses the impermanence of place. …

When one thinks of monks or nuns, the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience come to mind. But many also take a vow of stability. In The Sign of Jonas, the journal that traces the time around his ordination as a Trappist priest, Thomas Merton describes that vow: “By making a vow of stability the monk renounces the vain hope of wandering off to find a ‘perfect monastery.’”

St. Benedict had little respect for monks who lacked stability, and he applied to them the perfectly fitting term “gyrovague.” His Rule states: “These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony.”

We all need to learn that “perfect” doesn’t exist on earth; the greener grass is probably artificial turf. Stability is a commitment to life as it is now: the relationships, the places, the joys, and even the sorrows we deal with each day. It is a refusal of the temptation to run away from our lives when they get dark or uncomfortable. And it is a recognition that the places we know will change. …

The maps of our lives beckon us to explore new places while urging us to take along those things that have shaped us and made us who we are: the memories, the people, the ideas, the beliefs, the virtues and values we hold most dear. Stability keeps all this intact when the world of matter outside wants to make us think it is more important than it really is.

A few years ago I wrote that nostalgia lives in places that, in the context of what we do have in our daily lives, tell us what we no longer have (or never had) but recognize as good and worth pursuing. Stability is the foundation for special places like so many of America’s college towns, places that seem to stand outside of time, to some degree, and offer aged alums as much as first time visitors a sense that, “Yes, this place is enough.”

Livable places

Hazel Borys writes:

Tonight I was thinking back through all of the places I’ve lived, correlating the physical form of the places to the size of my circle of friends. While completely an anecdote of a sample size of one, I noticed that when I lived in more walkable locations, I certainly had a much more engaged urban tribe. Just out of university, I moved into a flat on High Street. Most every morning, I’d go for a run with a friend, then meet up at the coffee shop with three or four friends before work. Saturday mornings at the farmers’ market with a larger circle were a weekly standard. Some of those friends are still close today, despite the long distances between us. I had more social capital paid in before 8 a.m. than I did all day that time I lived in the suburbs, where I only lasted two and a quarter years.

Another chapter of life was in a small town, a five minute walk to the town square. We frequently had dinner on the front porch, where friends would meander by and stop awhile. Gardening in my front yard, a complete stranger stopped on the sidewalk to chat, and she soon became one of my closest friends in town.

I had plenty of time to think through this today as we completed a favourite holiday ritual of baking cookies for 31 of our closest neighbours. This is something we never did while living in a suburban environment, even though we had a small child, who is more likely to connect us to others. While I’m sure that that there are just as many lovable people in the auto-oriented suburbs as there are in walkable, complete communities, livable places connect people, and make social bonds more likely. …

I realize there are significant stage-of-life factors that figure in to how connected we are to others. Most people tend to have significantly stronger social bonds just out of college than later in life. And having a young child strengthens those bonds as our kids open doors to community.

… as Charles Montgomery writes in The Happy City, social isolation has much to do with the form of our built environment. Those connections that are essential for well-being are particularly difficult to come by in the auto-centric dispersed city, and are more likely in walkable, connected neighbourhoods. Charles points to happiness economist John Helliwell at UBC, who found that in Canadian cities, trust in neighbors was the key for life satisfaction, not income or wealth. He also cites Elizabeth Dunn, who found even superficial contact with strangers generates a “social-tie density” that supports wellness and productivity.

It’s good to live in a place where you can walk to all of the places you really need to get to, or at minimum hop in a subway/train or reasonably-priced Uber/etc.

Union Carbide Building

Justin Davidson writes on the planned demolition of the Union Carbide Building in New York and reflects on what is lost and gained with its replacement:

If the bank has its way—and who’s to stop it?—workers will soon take acetylene torches to the 700-foot, 57-year-old building at 270 Park Avenue, razing and then replacing it with a 1,200-foot-high hyper-headquarters ample enough for 15,000 people. Union Carbide will become the tallest structure ever demolished by peaceful means…

The tower at 270 Park Avenue was designed for Union Carbide largely by Natalie Griffin de Blois, a crack designer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s New York office. As the rare woman in the testosterone-dominated world of midcentury architecture, she was (and remains) overshadowed by Gordon Bunshaft, the magus of modernist architects. …

Together, Bunshaft and de Blois helped create the look of 1960s America, the cocktail of luxe and simplicity that defined the big corporation. They amplified the power of straightforward geometries. Taut planes, gridded frames, and straight lines so beguiled architects that even today their successors haven’t shaken off the wonder of those feats. Before the 1950s, builders could hide approximations and errors with ornament or tolerant stone. De Blois and her cohort produced designs that exposed every imperfection and didn’t forgive. …

Modernism’s newness thrilled the critic Ada Louise Huxtable. In 1957 she voiced the hope that, if good enough architects did a good enough job, the new style would “deliver us from the present anarchy and return us to this perennial ideal” of “serenity, harmony, and repose.” It didn’t work out that way. In order to celebrate her new 20th century Renaissance, Huxtable had to write off what she saw as the over-ornamented masonry hodgepodge of apartment buildings and hotels that the new Park Avenue declared obsolete. The architectural historian Vincent Scully could not abide such deliberate slate-wiping. Glass buildings, he wrote, derived their meaning from contrast with their chunkier predecessors, the pleasing contrast of a crystal and stone. The new towers pulled back from the sidewalk to create plazas, lining up in a parade of quasi-military uniformity. For Scully, they destroyed the street.

Glass buildings soon destroyed entire cities, too, as efficiency muscled out elegance. A style predicated on mass production has kept on grinding out widget-like skyscrapers that are equally at home, or equally alien, in downtowns from Düsseldorf to Jakarta to Santiago de Chile. It’s a fair bet that, whoever designs the next iteration of 270 Park, it will belong in the lineage that began with Mies van der Rohe, Bunshaft, and de Blois.

The Union Carbide Building deserves to continue existing, not because it was in the vanguard of a movement with a dubious urban legacy, but because it’s among the finest of its kind. The clear glass membrane, stainless steel fins, and slender bones combine to give it a texture and personality that so many imitators lack. It achieves regularity without monotony, the rhythm of its façade marked by syncopations: the low street level and double-height lobby above, the two bands of blackness that segment the tower and frame the illuminated grid of offices. While at the Seagram Building a few blocks away, Mies bordered the façade in bronze I-beams, here de Blois has the columns stand back from the corners so that the walls seem to meet in the lightest of pencil lines. …

And so the destruction of 270 Park Avenue will act out a ruthless architectural Darwinism, which treats buildings as mere financial tools, to be discarded when they become a burden or a constraint. Modernist architects helped formulate that philosophy. Their style can have little claim to reverence, when it cleansed away so much history without sentimentality or nostalgia, and when it fetishized the use of technology that was more easily discarded than repaired. And yet a great building is more than just an envoy from a particular architectural past; it’s a statement that aspiration is worthwhile, that quality has value, that urban life is not just a matter of metrics. If New York can’t distinguish standouts from knockoffs, it doesn’t deserve the next generation of architecture. And then it becomes a disposable city.

I don’t think the Union Carbide Building is a beautiful building, but I can see the value of its preservation in light of Justin Davidson’s context. But as he pointed out, a key part of the modernist architectural movement was to instill an attitude of disposability into architecture.

It’s certainly the case that the post World War II international order, and the globalization of commerce and markets that it helped foster, has resulted in less distinctive places. That makes sense. A more culturally integrated world would naturally be a more architecturally integrated world, wouldn’t it?