Sunday, December 23, 2007

Making It Expensive in the Lower 9th

In an amazing convergence of fame, money and humanitarianism, Brad Pitt is sponsoring a rebuilding project in New Orleans' devastated Lower 9th Ward. The northern half of the Lower 9th was directly in the path of a break in the Industrial Canal, with many houses being crushed by an errant barge that drifted through the breach. 2 years after the hurricanes, most of the house remains have been removed, but there's virtually no rebuilding going on.

City of pink

Pitt's project is named Make It Right 9, and there's a good writeup about it at the Poverty News Blog. As part of the project, a range of architecture firms were invited in to create prototype house designs for the neighborhood.

I had the chance to view the house designs this week. I applaud the intent behind the undertaking, but some of the designs really made me wonder what the architects were thinking.

The beached whale

Many of the houses feature crazily angled walls and roofs, bizarrely bent forms that would require a master carpenter to build (or a computerized factory.) One looks like it was picked up by a flood and smashed in the middle, its back broken as though a bus (or a barge) had landed on it -- ho ho, oh, ironic commentary! What wit! If I were a survivor of the post-Katrina catastrophe, I think I'd feel insulted.

What the hell is this?

Several of the designs, however, seemed to show true interest in economy (ie, ease and speed of construction, the use of common and widely available methods and materials, not to mention use of common design elements that have made New Orleans buildings survivable for a century or more), which is what's truly needed to bring back an entire neighborhood. I particularly liked the one that featured a house whose walls are largely made of premanufactured modular storage cabinets, with a straightforward roof dropped on top. Simple to design, easy to erect in the field.

The green features are also of interest, though I wonder what the startup costs vs. long term savings are.

Not bad

Ultimately, the problem is not a lack of design concepts. You can wander New Orleans and find a dozen or so tried and true house designs that have weathered a hundred years of the city's notorious heat and humidity and torrential rains. The problem is that hundreds or thousands of new houses are needed, right now. This means they have to be done quickly and affordably.

So again, I wonder -- what were some of the architects thinking? Was their intent to construct houses on a tight budget as a reproducible precedent, or merely to show off their bleeding-edge designs capabilities? Is theirs a humanitarian effort, or just jumping on a chance to jerk off, to experiment at the possible expense of the poor?

The full roster of designs can be seen here. Most of the projects featured descriptive text on their display boards, but sadly that text is not reproduced on the web site.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Notes from New Orleans

So all that snow that fell Friday and Saturday? Sorry, sorry, that was me. I came through town with my bicycle in tow, thinking I might get out and do a little bit of riding. Ha! I still had a pretty great weekend in St. Louis, though. Photos to come in January!

The weather in New Orleans has been much kinder, fortunately, and I just finished the first of several days riding around town. A few thoughts:

  • New Orleans' flat topography and warm climate may make for easy bike travel, but otherwise the city is one of the least bike-friendly places I've been. There are no bike lanes to be found in the Garden District, French Quarter, or downtown. The streets are narrow, pinching bikers between racing traffic and parked cars. Despite it being a pleasant 65 degrees or so, I saw almost nobody biking today. It's a bit inexplicable considering how accommodating parts of the city are for the pedestrian.

  • Even disregarding the memory of what happened there in September 2005, the Superbowl and its environs are a horrible and inhuman place. The building itself is a mammoth superblock, with low-rise wings and parking garages taking up a vast area of downtown. Surrounding half of it are Interstate overpasses, cutting off roads and funnelling westbound traffic from downtown onto a limited number of routes. It's a classic example of the awful "urban" planning of the 1960s, all plopped down on the edge of what is otherwise a delightful downtown. The building itself, seen from ground level, looks like an arena of doom. I can't imagine how it must have looked to the poor souls who dragged themselves there on foot across a flooded city, with no idea what they might find within.

  • The Garden District and the surrounding neighborhoods are astonishing in their endless delight and vast architectural variety. And the neighborhoods just to the north are abuzz with construction and rebuilding activity.

    Tomorrow's travels: Charity Hospital, Canal Street north of downtown, Marigny, Bywater, and more!
  • Sunday, December 09, 2007

    You too can fly

    I would just like to reiterate to everyone out there what an astonishing tool is, especially the Bird's Eye View. Some examples:

    - The exact point where the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers merge.

    - US Steel's Granite City works.

    - Metro East Industries' locomotive salvage works at Alorton

    - Cahokia Power Plant

    - Just across the river, the ruins of the minesweeper vessel Inaugural.

    - Ruined neighborhood in Wellston, now demolished.

    - Tidy streets by O'Fallon Park in north city.

    The combination of birds-eye and map/satellite hybrid lets you soar over the land like a god, peering into the hidden worlds of industry and abandonment, granting you an overreaching vision of the lay of the land. In the case of recent demolitions, it grants the user a window into the recent past, as the photographs date from around early 2006. And it has let me identify the exact locations of photographs that I took with only the barest idea of where I was.

    Sadly, a huge swath of western St. Louis is missing from the Birds Eye feature -- basically anything west of Midtown and south of University City.

    Wednesday, December 05, 2007

    On Washington Avenue, a remarkable transformation

    St. Louis has a long and not-so-proud tradition of bad Modern architecture.

    Bad Modernism is so pervasive, in fact, that I blame St. Louis for making me hate Modernism for many years. It took a trip to Europe, and the roadside enthusiasm of several friends and acquaintances, to make me change my attitude.

    And even after re-evaluation, much of St. Louis's more prominent Modernism doesn't hold up. Washington University has so much bad Modernism (Busch Labs, Monsanto, Mudd Hall, Compton Hall) that it's no wonder they've opted to scrap the idea entirely. It's enough to drive a body to Postmodernism.

    What a shock it was, then, to drive past the old Days Inn at Washington and Tucker.

    From a kitschy bit of weak 60s roadside Modern, an elegant and classy building has emerged... and with only a minimal bit of aesthetic tweaking. The basic form is still there, the angled window panels that distinctly dated it to the 1960s. But now, with a few simple wise choices in materials, the once-tired building steps into synch with its many renovated neighbors, while still not hiding its heritage. The ground floor is opened up a bit with partial glass facades, and a garage entrance on Washington has been eliminated, making a more pedestrian-friendly environment at the sidewalk.

    The renovated building looks fantastic. Kudos to the owners for not tearing it down!

    Saturday, November 17, 2007

    Chicago Job Search

    I'm currently seeking architectural/preservation employment in Chicago. If you know of firms that are hiring, or have contacts in the Chicago architecture/preservation sphere, I'd be grateful to hear from you.

    More details here.

    Friday, November 16, 2007

    The Changing Face of the South 40

    Beaumont and Rubelmann

    If you're a 1990s Wash U alum like myself, there's growing odds that one of the dorms you lived in no longer exists.

    The two high rise towers, Shepley and Elliot, were demolished in the late 1990s. More recently, low-rise dorms Koenig and Liggett were torn down in 2005, having been replaced by a new building. The other four low-rise dorms (Lee, Umrath, Beaumont and Rubelmann) are likewise slated for replacement, as is Wohl Student Center.

    South 40 dorms

    Washington University's old dorms are a somewhat chintzy variant of Modernism, with cheap orange brick in a harsh contrast with the white-painted concrete. Individually, there's not too much that's special about them. The intended elegance of their open, glassy ground floors, with the upper floors floating above on arcades of white columns, gets a bit lost when you're up close, with the ground floor rooms largely empty and unused. Meanwhile, the upper floors lack any sort of communal space, aside from the shared bathrooms.

    But in the time I knew them, the dorms were an unaltered example of 1950s planning, completed by 1965 and not touched for over three decades. They were a rare example of "towers in the garden" that actually worked. Much of that planning has been reworked with a contemporary sensibility, and while the result are certainly fine, it's a little sad to see the purity of the original plan diluted, faults and all.


    The old low rises are being replaced because they can't be effectively remodeled to meet the University's standards for room configuration and bathrooms, in part because of window placement. The rigidly marching rows of windows certainly don't lend themselves to a flexible arrangement.

    Like the grounds, I'm sure the new dorms are nice. In fact, testifying from spending my senior year in the early 1990s Wydown House (now Mudd House), they're likely rather posh. I remember wondering why we needed so much space in our suite; I felt a bit guilty living in such luxury.

    By my senior year, I'd kind of adopted the idea that you go through some rough times in college: you scrimp and save a bit, struggle to make ends meet, curtail your spending, learn to live on the cheap. You don't expect luxury on campus or off. If you live off-campus, you're in some run-down old apartment building. You certainly don't have money to throw around. That's what college is, right? That's just a standard rite of passage, isn't it?

    Not anymore, apparently, and maybe not even in my own time. I was always suprised that some of my classmates had cars in college -- how on Earth do they afford that? I recall my Junior year as I was moving into Shepley, some girl came into her room and marched out 30 seconds later, declaring that she couldn't possibly live there; I never saw her again.

    The notion that the old South 40 dorms were somehow inadequate, with their shared bathrooms and worn finishes and relatively small size, never once crossed my mind. That was what we got, and you learn to deal with what you've got, and at any rate it certainly seemed good enough to me. It's not a hotel; it's college!

    But college today is more and more shaped to be a luxurious commodity, no different than your folks' home out in Town & Country. The idea of "hard knocks" doesn't sell; "safe, pretty and comfortable" does. Meanwhile, we gripe when the price of tuition keeps going up. Tearing down buildings and putting up replacements don't come cheap, y'know.

    Hurd and Meyers

    There's been no mention of plans to replace the 6 1950s suite buildings (Rutledge, Hurd, etc.) But I wouldn't be surprised if it comes down the line eventually. That would be especially sad -- the buildings are less interesting, but the suite arrangement is especially nice, with sunnily lit common rooms and pleasant balconies.

    Monday, October 29, 2007

    The Case of the Vanishing Links

    In reworking the East St. Louis tour last week, I was disappointed to find that ESLARP had revamped its web site... and in doing so, removed a large and valuable archive of information and photographs, much of it primary sources.

    I don't know the reasoning behind the purge, but I can speculate on reasons: the information no longer fit the school's "mission". It was "old" or "outdated". It gave a backwards-looking impression. It consumed valuable server space. An individual student or faculty member left and their server space was deleted.

    I hope none of them are right; they're all pretty bad reasons.

    But this is why I often hesitate to link to off-site information -- it's so prone to vanishing, whether handled by a corporation, institution, or individual. It leaves me wondering years down the road where I got certain information, and if it's correct at all; I find myself more and more prone to saving copies of entire pages and sites to my hard drive so I can at least re-check my sources. Sometimes it seems that in the rough-and-tumble of the web, the only person you can really rely on is yourself.

    Sunday, August 26, 2007

    The hits just keep on comin'

    Anyone concerned with the future of St. Louis's urban environment should be reading Steve Patterson's Urban Review StL blog. But in particular, this post is a devastating compendium of the innumerable mistakes made by those who have built the city over the last ten years.

    Thursday, August 23, 2007

    Does silence equal sinister?

    I have recently had an interesting and informative conversation by email with a building owner who was rather distraught by my incorrect posting that his building was being torn down without a thought, as the owners have apparently labored and spent in vain to repair it over the years. After several back and forths, we got the situation settled, and I've updated my pages accordingly.

    It points out one of those ways that business has tended not to keep up with the times, however: owners of landmark buildings would be well advised to be more public with their intentions for their properties.

    With the rise of the Internet in general, and blogging in particular, the public now has a practically unlimited voice. This is generally a good thing; the more public input can be brought to light, the more likely that plans for cities and buildings can be made humane, accomodating, and beautiful.

    But there is a danger, as well. It is indeed possible for well-intentioned persons -- myself included -- to rush to print with incomplete or inacurate information. I only know what I know, and if the people who know the most -- the developers themselves -- remain silent, it's hard to do anything but speculate.

    And in St. Louis, speculation is often fueled by pessimism. Too often, silence has been the tool of developers and businessmen who know their plans will meet with harsh criticism, or who simply don't care about public opinion. When the survival of our historic architecture and urban environments are at stake, that sort of intractability should be met and fought at every turn.

    If that silence leads to incorrect assumptions, it is up to the building owners to correct it -- not by attacking outspoken members of the public, but by put ting out accurate information. There's very little reason not to do so -- blogging is easy, fast, and free. A few simple posts, a few short but accurate paragraphs, can do wonders for a building owner's street cred.

    Too often, I suspect, this doesn't happen because businesses are held back by the need for bland corporate perfection: nothing can be said till it's been vetted a hundred times, watered down by meaningless business buzzwords, and reduced to saying virtually nothing so that nobody will have any expectations.

    But those days are done. If the "exciting new development opportunity" will mean tearing down a historic building, someone's going to call you out for it, even if you don't mention it in your press release. There's no way around it, and rather than continue an adversarial relationship with the public whose domain is affected by developers' decisions, it's high time those developers became more proactive about announcing their intentions, if not their exact plans.

    Nobody expects to know every detail, nor to "save every building" -- witness the recently deceased Switzer Building, whose demise was unfortuate, yet widely accepted as unavoidable after the damage it sustained. If the public knows a building owner is making a good-faith effort to save a building, they might be a lot more accepting when it doesn't happen in the end. And if the public is met by silence, what reason do they have to think that good faith exists at all?

    Saturday, August 18, 2007

    Church fire

    St. Alphonsus Liguori, aka the Rock, was damaged in a fire Thursday evening. The fire was primarily confined to the roof, but water damage from battling the blaze likely caused more widespread damage to the interior.

    Ecology of Absence has links to more coverage.

    Tuesday, July 17, 2007

    SLU's Long, Slow Mistake

    The photo below shows the physical form of an ordinary but proper urban street:

    This is Locust Street, looking east in Midtown. It's lined with buildings. They're built out to the sidewalk. They stand tightly packed together, and they're multi-story. When buildings like these are put to proper use, these design aspects provide a number of benefits including density, the resultant diversity of businesses, functions and persons within the neighborhood, and the pleasing aesthetic of being in a gently enclosing room.

    The street has a number of other notable elements, as well. A line of street trees helps soften the feeling of the place. The buildings are mostly old; some have been renovated, while others stand empty -- but none of these are inherently necessary to such a streetscape. It could also be achieved with newer buildings, in places where gaps in the street wall have appeared.

    Speaking of which....

    Turn a mere 90 degrees to the left, and you'll see the absolute opposite of the previous photo: a streetscape that has been utterly decimated by demolition and parking lots. It's a visual and functional wasteland, a forbidding and uninviting place to be, acres of land that serve only one narrow and extremely limited purpose.

    The rubble at left is the remnants of the old livery building -- the latest victim of Saint Louis University's ongoing efforts to flatten anything that doesn't directly serve them. SLU's ambitions don't end here; they extend across the street to include two of the buildings that comprise the integrated and intact streetscape along Locust:

    The desire to flatten these buildings, the urge to transform the city from the first photograph into the second, is utterly incomprehensible to me. Do they really think that the second photo is what's going to attract students? How many prospective students have been turned off from attending SLU by the de-urbanized wasteland that it has created around it?

    SLU needs to wake up and realize that they are a city campus in an urban environment, and that -- far from being an evil to be fought against -- this is in fact one of their greatest potential strengths. Midtown and St. Louis at large will continue to suffer so long as Saint Louis University continues to act as though tearing down enough buildings will put them in the countryside. It never will -- it will only create more of the desolation seen above.

    Sunday, July 15, 2007

    Deli St. Louis

    Fresh back from a short weekend in St. Louis, and I just gotta ask those of you living there full-time:

    Where the hell are the delis in this town?!

    Saturday AND Sunday, I'm hankering for a good cold cut sandwich. I find Mom's Deli on Saturday, still open after all these years, and all's well. This afternoon I'm up around Benton Park, so I swing by Blues City Deli - CLOSED!! Aug! What's a guy supposed to do? I cast my mind all over Soulard and downtown, trying to remember any other place that'd serve me a decent turkey sandwich on a Sunday.

    I finally wound up at City Grocers, and snagged a tasty roast beef that I devoured while driving out of town. So my needs were met... but it sure seems like there's a shortage of delis in St. Louis.

    Or else I just don't know where they are, which is quite likely...

    Monday, May 07, 2007

    Brick Rustlers in Action

    Photos from the 1900 block of Montgomery Avenue, just east of St. Louis Place Park:

    Brick rustlers

    I took these shots yesterday -- about 5pm on a Sunday afternoon. That's when most legitimate contracting work goes on, right?

    Brick rustlers

    The guy in white was hacking his way back to front across the side wall. Obviously, as old brick walls are load-bearing, this would eventually cause a huge portion of the wall above to collapse. Then the guys just have to walk up and pick up the bricks.... assuming nobody is killed when the wall falls down.

    But what about the house? The beautiful, historic, till-recently-partially-occupied house?...

    Brick rustlers

    Fuck the house, apparently.

    Brick rustlers

    When I came back for another pass a few minutes later, some of them were driving away. I wasn't quite quick enough to get a good shot of their truck as they passed; the license plate isn't quite legible. Damn. On the side, it said something along the lines of "E J Snow Removal" or "Easy Job Snow Removal".

    Brick rustlers

    I have to wonder who's paying these guys, who commissioned them to start attacking the last survivors of this block.... and if there's any relation to the ongoing encroachment of Blairmont, an organization that would probably be very happy to see many blocks swept clean of their historic houses. Surprise surprise, that's exactly what's happening.

    Wednesday, April 18, 2007

    A Fun Toy

    From, bird's-eye views of most of the St. Louis area:

    Cahokia Power Plant, for a starting point.

    The level of detail is incredible. And since the photos are all taken on an angle, buildings and landmarks are easily identifiable. It's a phenomenal resource, and a fascinating new way to look at familiar places.

    The photos appear to date from about 2005.

    Friday, March 09, 2007

    Neighborhood Meeting on Bohemian Hill

    The Bohemian Hill Neighborhood Association has called a meeting to discuss strategies for influencing the design and avoiding demolitions on Thursday, March 15th. The meeting will be held at Trinity Lutheran Church Gym, 1809 S. 8th Street in Soulard. It begins at 6:30. All are welcome and encouraged to come.

    Please attend and show your support for urban development without demolition of historic architecture!

    Wednesday, February 21, 2007

    The ongoing battle

    Tonight I added a small but important section to the site's front page, with a working title of "Urgent - Help Needed!"

    It's something I've wanted to do for a while, based on a long-standing frustration. I get a lot of emails from visitors lamenting the fall of the city's historic architecture, but so very rarely is there any sense that there's anything that can be done about it. Furthermore, I get a sense that it's treated as something over and done, as though the decay had reached its conclusion, and all the possible damage had been done.

    But the struggle to preserve architectural heritage is not a on-and-off switch; it is a continual cycle, a living thing, like the city itself. Buildings fell ten, twenty, thirty years ago -- but they continue to fall today. New threats arise; once-healthy buildings go vacant, then derelict; older buildings are reclaimed, redeveloped and rejuvenated, or torn down.

    And whether you live in the city today or moved away thirty years ago, there are still things you can do to help.

    Let the city's officials know the world is watching. Let them know that you care about the city's physical fabric, the buildings that compose it, and how it's all put together. Give money, give time, give your voice.

    Saturday, February 17, 2007

    C.A.V.E.: Citizens Against Vulgar Environments!

    Clever acronym adaptation courtesy of Steve Patterson.

    Evolution of the 'cave' man

    All the St. Louis blog world is atwitter over this St. Louis Business Journal article, but I gotta throw my two cents in regardless.

    Where to start? I don't know whether to laugh, cry, or scream. It's such an incredibly one-sided article that the developers might as well have written it themselves.

    The intention is to portray urban critics as being opposed to all developments, to the very idea of develoment -- which is absurd, of course. We live in cities. Development is requisite to the very environments we have chosen to make home.

    But, again, we live in cities -- not the country, not small towns, not suburbs. Those are all different environments with different needs. When a proposed development fails to meet the needs of the city, citizens are obliged to stand up and protest.

    I refuse to be silent when someone confuses this environment...

    Youree Drive, Shreveport

    ...with this one:

    S. Grand Avenue, St. Louis

    One is the city. The other is not -- it's a suburb. There's a world of difference.

    The needs of the suburb have been well-met over the last fifty years -- slavishly so. There is so much suburban development that a lot of people don't know any other way of living, can't concieve that there's something wrong with it, and are boggled when someone suggest that building a strip mall on the edge of Soulard might not be such a great idea, and why are you so anti-development??? People point to all the suburbia, its prevalence, as if it's somehow proof that everyone wants everything to be that way, as if the availability of different options somehow threatens to nullify all those strip malls and subdivisions.

    This argument makes my head explode. You've got your goddamn suburbs already. You've got suburbs running out your ears and paving every last damn thing for a hundred miles. You've got more suburbs than we can possibly afford to maintain. Now let us have our city!!!

    The needs of the city have been too frequently overlooked. THAT is why we're protesting. THAT is why some developers meet opposition.

    Show us the urbanism, and we'll show you the love. From the Continental Building renovation, to the new houses at Blewett High School, the infill houses at Bohemian Hill, the renovation of City Hospital, the rejuvenation of half a dozen skyscrapers downtown, the CONECT project in Old North, there are many excellent examples of how to work with urban environments right there in St. Louis.

    The city is a place, with character, with unique stuff that can't be found anywhere else. It draws some people. Those qualities MUST be preserved and nurtured.

    In a geographic location that looks like this...
    Mansfield Road, Shreveport can hardly expect a builder to put terribly much thought into what a building will look like, let alone how it relates to what's around it. Nothing there is worth caring about, so who would care about anything new that comes along? Small wonder developers are taken aback when people raise objections to their projects in the city.

    But it need not be so -- we are not protesting the existance of a project; indeed we welcome it! It is the form we are criticizing, for in the city, the form truly matters. People here care. And forms can be adapted, changed, altered, improved, without compromising the nature of a project.

    Hmph! 'Cave people' indeed. It is unfortunate that positive citizen action, open discussion of the built environment, and widespread awareness is viewed by developers as obstruction and misinformation.

    Look at the Bohemian Hill project. You want to know what's on the site now? You want to know what was there? You want to see a site plan? You gotta go to some guy from Milwaukee!! The local media ain't tellin' ya, and the developers sure as hell aren't either! Shouldn't all this information be readily forthcoming?

    I find it ironic and amusing that St. Louis bloggers as a group are being acused of spreading "misinformation" by people who commonly fail to spread any information at all.

    Sunday, February 11, 2007

    St. Louis's online community is amazing.

    As I skim back over my just-posted take on the Bohemian Hill development proposal, I'm struck by how many links I ended up putting in it. It's amazing how many people are already discussing this proposal, just days after its announcement.

    Lest you take that for granted, I challenge you to find any comparable discussion among the residents of Milwaukee. Apart from my little blog, and one or two other bloggers who occasionally touch on issues of urbanism, architecture and development, there's nothing. Silence. A void. There simply is no online community discussing the physical form of Milwaukee or its future.

    Granted, Milwaukee can afford to rest on its laurels a bit -- our last Mayor went on to become president of the Congress for the New Urbanism. When he first came to town, he saw a new Walgreens on Brady Street (Milwaukee's equivalent of Delmar) with a parking lot in front of it. "Why'd you build it like that??" he asked the developer. "'Cause that's what the code says we had to do!" was the answer. Mayor Norquist promptly set about changing the code. Then he tore down a freeway; we're just starting to fill in the 16 acres of downtown land that it opened up. It's Milwaukee's poor fortune that he was unable to tear down a second freeway that would have connected downtown to the neighborhoods to the south.

    Now we see the results of all that, as urban buildings are popping up like weeds all over Milwaukee's downtown and East Side.

    St. Louis, alas, cannot take such consideration for granted. Every bit of urbanism must be fought for, tooth and claw. Ultimately, the city's long-outdated zoning laws need to be replaced; otherwise, it's a case-by-case battle, never-ending and often lost.

    Saturday, February 10, 2007

    "We'll never be like Chicago!"

    Having lived and debated both north and south of the Windy City, I have heard Chicago brought up many times as an example of how to carry out some particular aspect of urban design and planning. And without fail, somebody will pop up with the stock local pride response: "St. Louis/Milwaukee isn't Chicago! And we shouldn't try to be!"

    It drives me crazy, because it completely misses the point.

    Chicago, while plagued with the same problems that most Rust Belt cities must deal with, is a highly successful urban environment when compared to most American cities. It packs considerable population density across a large area, enough to support a busy and thriving mass transit system. The rail portion of that system succeeds because it runs so frequently that it's a viable alternative to driving. It's desirable not to drive because things are so dense, parking so scarce. Things are dense because a large volume of historic buildings have been preserved, and where they have been destroyed they've been replaced by buildings of greater density. It has both major chains and small local stores. It has a diversified economy, fueled by this variety of scales. It has busy street life. It has, in short, all the hallmarks of a true urban environment.

    But those are not the trappings of some kind of mythical aura of Chicagoness that if emulated will turn all your citizens into zombie Bears fans. They are the basic requirements of any successful urban environment, regardless of its size. They apply across the board -- in Chicago, in New York, in San Francisco, and yes, in St. Louis and Milwaukee.

    Build upon those things, and your city succeeds. Diminish them, work against them, allow developers to build sprawl instead of density, and your city fails.

    It is not about becoming Chicago; it is about becoming an urban environment, and Chicago is the closest example one that works. Your city may never "be like Chicago" in whatever other ways you're thinking of (certainly it's unlikely to match Chicago's population), but it would do well to learn some of Chicago's lessons. They transcend any one location.

    Friday, February 09, 2007

    ...and my city was gone

    Published in the St. Louis Business Journal, reproduced in full in Toby Weiss's B.E.L.T.: Look what they want to do to Soulard!!

    This is a bad, bad plan. It is suburban in form, scale, and layout. It is meant to cater to the heavy interstate traffic behind it, rather than the pedestrian-scale neighborhoods on either side. It will do nothing to knit together the sundered fabrics of Lafayette Square and Soulard. Its brick facades are only the dimmest and most trivial of gestures toward its context.

    And it is certainly not "how you build a great city". You do that by creating memorable physical environments, scaled and planned for people instead of cars, responsive to historic context -- not scattered one-story buildings fronting on five acres of parking.

    For reference, here's a map of the immediate area:

    The gray houses are still standing. The red ones are gone. I will have much more to say on this -- stay tuned.

    Monday, February 05, 2007

    The Fagin Building

    Before there was the Arcade Building, there was the obscure, bizarre, short-lived Fagin Building:

    A. W. Fagin Building

    This page, by a distant relative of the building's architect, offers some detailed views and interesting commentary. The Fagin Building showed a use of bold forms similar to those of Frank Furness (and similarly reviled in the architectural press of the time); its facade contained vast areas of glass to allow natural light to flood the interior -- a Modernist tenet decades ahead of its time. It was remodeled into the far less interesting Burlington Building after only a few years, but for that short time St. Louis had a truly remarkable gem of architecture.

    Saturday, February 03, 2007

    There's Still Crime in the City

    So now I'm doin' it my way
    I took the law in my hands

    USA Today: Cities see crime surge as threat to their revival

    Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: Violent crime leaps in city

    Time Magazine: The Next Crime Wave

    From an interview with outgoing Milwaukee chief of police Nan Hagerty:

    First of all, it’s important for people to realize that, as a police department, we end up with problems that are many times created because of society. You’re talking about a lack of jobs. Years ago, there were people who could get good, family-supporting jobs in factories with very little education, work for 25 years and retire with a retirement benefit. That is when Milwaukee was the safest city in the nation. All of those jobs have left.

    With those lack of jobs has come an increase in the rate of poverty, a teen pregnancy rate in Milwaukee that’s just out of this world, and, of course, all of the other things that come with that.

    Same issue, the Milwaukee Shepherd-Express's response to the Time story.

    From user Boxchain: March Against Crime in New Orleans, with some very large and very angry crowds.

    In my own life, my housemate's car was stolen, someone got mugged on the street right in front of our house, a co-worker's car was broken into, two more cars on the same lot were broken into this week, and my own car has been rifled through twice in the last few months (lost my MP3 player, the only time I've left anything valuable in the car in years. Damn!!) A lady was punched in the face by a random guy a few blocks from my girlfriend's Chicago apartment. Over in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood (analogous to West Philadelphia, or to a lesser extent, Old North St. Louis), a group has started a foot patrol to help keep some eyes on the streets during peak bar hours.

    People want to flee from it, run away to the suburbs, move further and further and further out, as if running away will solve the problem.

    It won't. The problem always catches up, no matter how far you run.

    You look around and suddenly your 1950s suburb is going down hill, the "wrong people" are starting to move in, and oh crap, it's time to leap outwards to the next ring of the peripheral exurban rim. (And hey, guess what? Scientists have just informed us that we can't afford to keep running anymore.)

    The whole system is broken, just unbelievabley broken. We've created an entire underclass of unemployed people who see no prospects, no hope, no future, who have become culturally engrained to oppose anything that might resemble progress or self-improvement. Guns get tossed around like candy and fired off like firecrackers. People are just crazy out there.

    And it all spirals onwards because we allow our animalistic craving for revenge, for punishment, override our human sensibility, our rational thought processes. We're locking up more people now than ever before, and can we really say it's working? Of course not. We aren't doing jack to improve these people, to give them hope, treatment, training, a path to follow once they're released, a plan, prospects, a place to go. They get back on the street and they're right back at it. What else do we actually expect them to do??

    And it's killing my cities, the places that I love, the all-too-rare man-made places in America that are truly beautiful and humanizing -- not to mention the places that are our best hope for the future, the kind of places that we all need to be re-compacting ourselves into if we're ever to curb our auto-based carbon emissions so we don't wreck the entire goddamn planet and wipe ourselves out in the process. It doesn't matter if we manage to dig up any more oil or not, because the atmosphere simply can't handle our current carbon output. Technology will. not. save us. Urban, non-auto-centric living will, but don't count on our *expletives deleted* president to tell you that. Hell, no politician is ever likely to; it's not a very popular thing to say. It would actually challenge people to change their life styles.

    The cities are our future -- as a nation, as a civilized society, as a species. They must be fought for, defended, with both determination and intelligence. They must be rebuilt to accomdate all our population, not just the rich or the poor or the people inbetween. I'd really hope that we might be able to save a few old buildings in the process, because so much of what we build today just isn't very nice to look at compared to what we built a hundred years ago... but in the end that's less important than heading off a global catastrophe and maybe building some cities that are actually good places to walk, work, play, and live in... without a space-consumptive, carbon-spewing automobile.

    Monday, January 29, 2007

    Late and unlamented

    I gotta admit.... I've always been awfully hard on that poor old Modernist building that used to sit in front of the State Hospital.

    Looking back at it now, I can see it was actually kind of an interesting building, in that Mid-Century Modern kind of way which has come to intrigue me over the last few years. It had a pattern of various brightly colored tiling on its spandrel panels, and a bold grouping of bay windows on the top story. Stone-clad stair towers connected to the main building by bright blue metal panel corridors. The row of square windows on the one-story hallway wing, surrounded by stone lintels, surely made a beautiful pattern seen up close.

    But 12 years ago I didn't really appreciate any of these relatively subtle gestures. All I saw was a big ugly orange thing blocking the intended view of a grand old Classical building. It really was put in the wrong spot, and maybe sheathed in the wrong color of brick for its location. But those were its only real crimes.

    I don't regret the restoration of State Hospital's commanding front elevation... but I wish I had more photographs of the building that once obscured it. Would it have killed me to spare one negative to properly photograph the front elevation?

    Tuesday, January 23, 2007

    A New Orleans survey

    On the Road in New Orleans

    I grew up in Shreveport, just five hours up the road from New Orleans, but it was a completely different world -- suburban, bland, vaguely Southern, with only the most distant hint of the Creole culture at the opposite end of the state. I visited New Orleans probably four or five times in high school -- mostly for swim meets, which meant I didn't see a whole lot of the city.

    French Quarter at night

    It wasn't till years later, on a 2002 visit, that I came to realize what a great city it was. I went back in 2004, and photographed heavily... but not in the outlying neighborhoods, which we only passed through briefly. It was a fantastic trip, a great time, a wonderful experience. There's no place like New Orleans!

    Then came the hurricanes. From Milwaukee, I watched with anxiety and fury as the city was pummelled, as the levees fell, as the news media took their damn sweet time to realize and expose the magnitude of the calamity.

    Lower 9th Ward - north

    And to this day, I find myself dissatisfied with the mass media coverage of the disaster. What state are the neighborhoods in? Where are the photographs? How is the recovery effort going? What are the plans for the city? The first question, at least, I could answer for myself. News media, even in the Internet age, are incredibly stingy with their photographs (I'm not -- there's over 500 on this tour.) I wanted to see what was left, what was damaged, to photograph the places of the city before some of them disappear forever.

    Myself and three companions headed south the day after Christmas, and spent Wednesday and Thursday roaming the city. There were some restraints, of course; while my appetite and energy for urban exploration is virtually limitless, other people's is not. I didn't get to do everything I wanted.... but the same can be said of any trip to St. Louis.

    I've always seen St. Louis as a kind of younger sister to New Orleans -- both river cities, both rooted in French history and Catholic culture, both with architecturally rich cores of red brick buildings, both with old souls, both with a history of jazz and blues music. Like St. Louis, it's a place that draws me back again and again -- a surprise around every corner, always something new to see. It's a city worth fighting for, a place that should be cherished and nurtured.

    Up close and afar, I've fallen in love with this old, meandering city on the river; and having seen more of it than ever before, I've come to realize how much of it I still have yet to see.

    Thursday, January 04, 2007

    Inside the Arcade Building

    Ruined Typesetting Machines

    The ruins of a typesetting machine, which created the raised letters which pressed ink onto paper.

    What will the equivalent ruins of our society be like? Will the shrouded shells of our inkjet printers be so stark and compelling when they lay as outdated ruins.

    These decades-old machines are to today's printers what the steam locomotive was to the diesels that replaced it: an expensive, complex anachronism... but far more interesting to look at.