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While most people have been generally obsessed for the past 15 years with buildings and the starchitects behind them, the “public realm,” for lack of a better term, went into hibernation. Now, with the economy stalled and the amount of new buildings – and their architects – stalled, the forums of our cities are getting some much deserved attention. Hey, we’re architects and we support the construction of new and renovated buildings as a matter of livelihood, but that has not ceased our intense interest in the care and development of successful urban places where these buildings live and where people move and breathe between buildings. Where we can stand back and look. And talk. And eat. And play. If our cities were just buildings, we’d be living on the Death Star. The buildings may define a city by it’s skyline, but it’s the public spaces between buildings that define a city by it’s people, their culture, and how they inhabit and move through it.

“We’ve been so fixated on fancy new buildings that we’ve lost sight of the spaces they occupy and we share,” Michael Kimmelman says in his report on New York’s amazing public spaces. He spent an afternoon walking through some of New York’s famous – and infamous – public spaces with the urban planner and architect Alexander Garvin. Earlier this year I took a class of NYU students on a very similar walking tour. The point of both walks was to point out the canvas that our building icons sit upon. How do buildings hit the streets? How do the spaces around them support human movement, transportation, relaxation, urban enjoyment? I argued on my walk that most buildings do a rather poor job of transitioning to the sidewalk. They look great from a distance and from aerial photographs – the postcard shots – but often fail at negotiating the all too important human scale at the ground. The Seagram building is seminal architecture, to be sure. The plaza in front (and on the sides) has much to be desired.

Call it “ground up” architecture instead of “trickle down.” Kimmelman writes about how the Dutch begin their urban design projects thinking about granular aspects like subway entrances, bike paths, crosswalks, and storefronts before handing off building sites to architects. here in the States it’s most often the reverse. The developers design their buildings, and the public realm has to adapt to what is given them. I am always struck in Europe with the prevalence of “square,” or, “plaza, piazza, place, ter, trg, torg, plein, platz,” or any number of translations that make open space in the city so loved and respected. It’s hip to be square.

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This past Saturday, I joined a small crew at Rocking the Boat in the Bronx, an amazing organization that works with local teenagers and teaches them how to build boats. After a quick tour of their workshop, some of the kids joined us as we paddled their creations on the adjacent Bronx River and where, I believe, was the true power of the organization. Learning how to build boats teaches the kids craftmanship, team work, and those intangible skills that any focused pursuit can give to young people. Out on the river, the boats opened up whole new worlds to normally landlocked urbanites: water issues, ecology, wildlife, the environment, community context, social responsibility. The students at Rocking the Boat were born in the Bronx. Now they are studying the river ecology and restoring wetlands with their neighbors. They are camping in the Catskills and taking Outward Bound classes in the Sierra Nevada. They’re getting scholarships and going to college. A couple of oars can take you way past the Whitestone Bridge.

 

 

 

I just stumbled upon another interesting article in the NYTimes by Allison Arieff. Writing over a month ago, she looks at the persistent yet optimistic theory that design can solve the “problems” in the workplace. One of my “problems” is I’m just reading this now. My busy work life, my much needed personal life, and my odd day-offs over the summer, have not left much room for catching up with current events and the popular press. I can decry the fact that I spend time staring at my iPhone on my days off, but the fact of the matter is that my iPhone allows me to take days off, because I can use it to answer emails remotely. This multi-tasking-life-work-integration-collaboration is sweeping the professional world, and I guess I’m part of it.

But is this a “problem”? As Arieff points out, and we all intuitively know, more and more of us are working in more and more unconventional fashion. Throw in the unstable economy, and you’ve got a generation of workers working in a non-work-like atmosphere. At home. On the road. In the car. On the sidewalk. Off of a tablet. In other words, not at a desk in an office.

So while designers and contract furniture makers try to re-design the cubicle and make the office a more creative atmosphere, the larger issue continues unabated and often ignored: we continue to work in erratic ways and erratic locations. We continue to live and work in more flexible ways, juggling life and family and work in one great creative act. Our lifetyle, not our office or our mobile tools, is the primary driver dictating this schizophrenic behavior. So the solution won’t be better desk or a smarter office, but a clear and honest understanding of how we want to be.

(Working in the “green” world, we have become keenly aware that the answer to climate change is not some new technology. Motion sensors, PV panels, heat-transfer systems, are all great at reducing green house gas emissions. But to truly get us on a path to energy intelligence we have to honestly look at how our behavior can affect energy use and change the way we live. It’s a nice day today. And we just got another obscene electricity bill in the mail. Today we turned off the ACs and opened the windows. Simple and effective.)

The related question, of course, is our varied lifestyle conducive to being productive? While each of us exhibits our individual creativity, very few jobs get accomplished in solitude. Work spaces need places for conversation, team work, and the freedom to collaborate and ideate. But does too much freedom lead to chaos? While a desk can be confining, I find it helps me focus and deliver. Personally, I could not do my job effectively if I were constantly on the run and dialing in from coffee shops. While I could use a better desk. What I really need is a better calendar.

It’s encouraging to hear that “productive conversations” between a farming initiative and Detroit bureaucrats are happening. Mapos sincerely hopes that this is genuine and not just wishful thinking. If there is something Detroit does not need is another hollow reason to get their hopes up.

My Detroiter brother sent this link that outlines these conversations as well as the pros and cons of building a substantial commercial farm within city limits. As with any urban “project,” the concerns are real and should not be discredited: an increase in truck traffic in residential areas or a conflict with existing agricultural businesses in Michigan that rightly need support for their own continued existence. What should not happen is to let a very good idea die because it is difficult to implement or simply because it is not business-as-usual. I do not think urban agriculture will cure Detroit’s ills. At least not alone. What is certain, however, is that business-as-usual will not.

“I think it’s better to generate some tax revenue from somebody,” says a local zoning attorney. Take a cue from New York, where Mayor Bloomberg readily tries new programs by couching them as prototypes and urban experiments so he can circumvent lengthy bureaucratic approval processes. If they don’t work, shutter the program and move on and chalk it up to a valiant effort that didn’t pan out. Something, anything, is better than nothing.

Mapos is all about better, smarter, more sustainable design strategies for our cities (and buildings, and homes, and parks….) What is happening in Europe is a fabulous example of more pedestrian friendly cities. As the author of this recent NYTimes article points out, businesses in car-restricted districts actually thrive with more pedestrian access, countering the long held argument by car-first advocates that businesses will suffer. All good stuff. We would be remiss, however, if we did not point out a strange oversight in the logic of the non-car set. they promote “people over cars” but seem to forget that people are driving those cars. Alternatives do exist. This is a model to celebrate. But let’s not dismiss a viable and sometimes necessary transportation alternative for many people.

Be sure to check out the first of 4 episodes on NBC’s Open House featuring the construction progress of the Montagnaro House. In this episode, Glenn Callahan and David Jackson of American Green Home Builders touch upon some green design strategies that everyone should consider when building a new home. Hats off to the greenest and most camera-ready GC team out there!

Be on the lookout for Mapos in a forthcoming episode dedicated to smart water management!

A view from the crow's nest looking West to North.

After one of the snowiest winters and rainiest springs on record, summer is finally here, and the hammers are flying in Ghent! The crew has raised the rafters and the space and form of the new house can at last be experienced in full scale reality. Whenever this milestone is achieved on a project, it is among the most exciting moments for an architect and client alike.

This week, as we finally ascended to the top floor of the Ghent House with the client, experiencing the intoxicating panorama of the Upper Hudson Valley from this crow’s nest, every decision, every risk, every fight for design that occurred during the process of design, was immediately, and joyfully, validated.

 

The latest edition of Green Source Magazine just arrived in the post. Check out a detailed review of the Green Depot store in the Case Study section. As the leading publication of  sustainable design and construction, Green Source is a great place to learn about what’s new in the world of progressive design and learn a bit about how Mapos works. If you can’t get your hands on the old fashion print version, check out the story online.

Be sure to check out the slide show, and the online video. Colin gives a riveting tour of the store, complete with his summer ‘stache.

My ever keen brother in Detroit recently alerted to me to a very interesting piece on his troubled and chagrined hometown. More a critique on the city’s media attention than on the city itself, VICE (and their broadband channel VBS.tv) takes aim at how this once-great-metropolis has fallen victim to shallow one-liners and easy-photo-essays on urban decline. I, for one, have pointed my camera at the adundant decay and posted the images for display, and can’t help but feel a bit sheepish about partaking in this “misery porn” myself (And yes – gasp – I even fetishized over the hulking Central Train Station. Tsk, tsk, says VICE).

Be sure to check out the VBS clips here.

While VICE showcases a fair bit of the urban decay themselves – fully half of their video piece features Johnny Knoxville illegally wandering through beautiful abandoned buildings marveling at their opulent past – the piece eloquently uncovers a nascent yet thriving creative class in Motor City. Artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs seem banded together in tough pioneerism, facing the cruel city with microphones, paint brushes and pulled pork. They commiserate in their under appreciated city and revel at their good fortune of living in Detroit at a time when they can poach entire city blocks for farming, art installations, and rave parties. Listening to these determined voices, you get the feeling that Detroit can rebound, one DIY project at a time.

The most poignant interview was with Larry Mongo, a long time entrepreneur who owns and operates Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy in Downtown Detroit. The recent Creative Class renaissance has brought his business back from the dead, he says, in an ever changing landscape of boom and bust. To paraphrase, he believes if the city founders could come back today, they would see young pioneers making their own mark on the city, just like they did 300 years earlier. We’re all moving and relocating and returning to “fill in the gaps,” left by the pioneers who came before us.

The point being, there ARE definitive pockets of community growing and collaborating and making something out of sweat and cheap real estate, just as they have across humanity for generations. When people get together and DO something – say YES – things happen. If this bond of purpose and determination is any sign, Detroit has a pulse. And it is growing in the empty gaps that have all too often defined this city.

A panoramic view of the Catskill Mountains to the West, from atop the dirt pile outside of Hudson, NY. Foundation formwork can be seen on the right.

We architects like to daydream… in fact that’s what got most of us here in the first place.

A dream becomes a vision, that vision slowly gestates, and through monumental efforts of a team of individuals, believing in and adding to this vision, not to mention commendable stamina, this vision forms into a reality. With the right team and the right client, this entire process can begin to take on a poetic rhythm.

The in-progress foundation pictured above is just such a project. A dream site with unobstructed views of the Catskill Mountains to the west, an incredible client seeking the latest in cutting edge sustainable practices with an open mind to design, and an energetic and knowledgeable general contractor dream team (American Green Home Builders, who provided this photo, a byproduct of their aforementioned energy).

We’ll keep you Mapostles updated on the progress of this new home as it magically forms over the next several months, and share with you our thoughts along the way!