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Are For-Profit Developments Consistent With the Values of a Public University?

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

I am by no means an expert on public-private partnerships. But for about 10 years, as the University of California Berkeley’s campus planner and then campus architect, I watched these developments play out in higher education—sometimes from a front-row seat, sometimes as a participant. During that time, this strategy, promoted with great enthusiasm and optimism, was touted as the answer to whatever problem arose. And yet the definition of a public-private partnership was slippery. The concept itself seemed to be all things for all people, depending on what was needed, who was recommending it, and what equivalents (if any) existed outside the university. The bandwagon continues to play today, making it ever more important to nail down the pros and cons of this development strategy, not only for colleges and universities, but for all public decision-making.

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The Time-Defying Nature of Living Architectural Traditions

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Traditional architecture is perceived as being historical architecture, both by the general public and by design professionals. Put another way, “traditional” = “style.” There’s no awareness of the process of tradition that creates what’s later considered a style. Modernism takes this perception one step further and frames traditional architecture as “not of our time,” and therefore obsolete.

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Is Mass Timber the Key Element in a Low Carbon Future?

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Chinese temples have stood for centuries, battered by wind and earthquakes, without a crack or timber out of place. They employ an ancient technique called “bracket set construction” that requires no nails or metal parts to connect wooden structural elements. Scandinavian stave churches are nearly as durable. Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of trees in Sweden and all over China.

So what is with the hype about innovation in “mass timber” construction over the past few years? As Boyce Thompson argues in his thoughtful new book, Innovations in Mass Timber: Sequestering Carbon with Style in Commercial Buildings (Schiffer Publishing), this will be the next big thing in “green” tech for architects feeling guilty about their costly titanium skins and outsized carbon footprints. The color photos show some impressive buildings in places where the wood industry has always been healthy, such as the Pacific Northwest and Scandinavia. The Japanese build log cabins with imported material that might as well be gold.

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How AI Can Help Us End Design Education Anachronisms

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

The rise of generative AI has given every design educator sufficient reason to reconsider both what to teach and how to teach it. Training an architect is a long process, and mapping it onto an uncertain future is a daunting task. Researchers at OpenAI, DeepMind, Meta, and similar companies seem constantly surprised by the rapid development and sometimes unforeseen capabilities of their AI creations. If even the creators don’t know how fast the future will arrive, it would be hubristic for any of us to claim that AI will do X or AI won’t be able to do Y in the next decade, which is about how long it takes to really train an architect.

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Social Housing in America: Architects Must Answer the Call

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

If you follow housing policy in America, you may have noticed a particular term cropping up a lot recently: social housing. Maybe you’ve read a longform academic article, live in a city that is codifying a social-housing policy like Seattle or Atlanta, or seen one of the recent mentions in The New York Times, highlighting U.S. and Viennese success stories. On the design front, Dezeen is running a social-housing revival series.

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Great American Cities That Teach Architecture

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Recently I visited Pittsburgh for a fascinating hand-drawing conference at Carnegie Mellon’s superb school of architecture, which to my knowledge is not among the top 10 in U.S. News and World Report. I wonder why? The curriculum is cutting-edge, the faculty world-renowned, and the students well-grounded and talented. More people of color are in the design community at CMU than at Princeton, SCI-Arc, or Harvard.

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Awesome and Affordable: Making the Case for Great Housing

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

When Brenda Mendoza told an NPR reporter about her commute to work, she became the face of the housing crisis in Los Angeles today. Mendoza, a uniform attendant at a Marriott hotel, was living with her family in an apartment in Koreatown, where she had grown up, 10 minutes from her job. The landlord raised the rent, so she moved to a less costly place in Downey. When that rent also rose out of reach, she moved to Apple Valley, and now gets up at 3:30 a.m. to drive 100 miles to her job, dropping off her husband and son at their jobs on the way. She did not move to Apple Valley to invest in a house she could love. She simply found an equally unstable, but slightly more affordable, rental hours from her workplace.

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Why Nearly Every City in the U.S. Needs a Walkability Study

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

About two weeks ago, I received an intriguing email from Jeff Speck, the author of two of the most influential books on urban planning in the past two decades: Suburban Nation (2010; co-authored by Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk) and Walkable City (2012; reissued in 2022 with new material). The press release it contained announced the formation of a new partnership, SpeckDempsey, “a new planning and design firm serving government, non-profit, and private clients.” Prior to this, Speck was a potent and highly visible one-man band spreading the gospel of walkable cities. After spending a decade as director of town planning at Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s firm, Speck served as director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts before setting up Speck & Associates in 2007. Now he has joined forces with Chris Dempsey, a Boston-area transportation advocate, with the joint goal of bringing walkable city practices to scale. Last week, I talked to them about their new partnership, their methodology, and their plans for the future.

A Model for a Healthier, Adaptive Approach to Community Development

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

The Healthy Cities movement is a strong but sometimes underappreciated planning concept with its roots in the complex structure of the human body. Formed in the 1970s, it transcends the current paradigm of building, roadway, and open space planning to address a more complex and systemic view of community life. The movement was pioneered and co-founded by Dr. Leonard Duhl, who was both an urban planner and medical doctor. I was lucky to have him as a planning mentor.

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"My Photographs Are a Celebration of the Making of Things": In Conversation with Christopher Payne

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Christopher Payne’s fascination with factories goes back decades. As an architecture student at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1990s, Payne had the good fortune to find a summer job with an agency inside the National Park Service called the Historic American Buildings Survey. “They sent teams of architecture students, historians, and photographers to document all kinds of projects,” he says. “We documented grain elevators in Buffalo, cast iron bridges in Ohio, a power plant in Alabama, and national parks in Utah. That experience instilled a deep appreciation for industrial architecture.” After graduation, he worked for several years as an architect in New York City before transitioning full-time to photography. His previous books include New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway; Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals; North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City; and Making Steinway: An American Workplace. Last month, Payne gave the School of Visual Art’s Ralph Caplan Memorial Lecture, and shortly afterward I reached out to him to talk about his most recent book, Made in America (Abrams), his long love affair with factories, and the photographic process.

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In Warsaw, a Student-Designed Architectural Response to Dark Times

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

As this bloody year draws to a close, at a moment when the message “Peace on Earth” seems altogether mute, one might well ask: What power does architecture have? How can it address violence against innocent people, whose lives have been turned upside down? How does architecture respond to staggering cruelty? What can it say? Can it raise consciousness?

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Bill McKibben on COP28, Maintaining Hope, and Walking in the Woods

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

The biennale UN climate conference, COP28, concluded in Dubai this week with a commitment to the eventual “phasing out” of fossil fuels. It was a classic glass-half-empty/glass-half-full gesture. Yes, as optimists pointed out, it was the first time any reference to moving away from fossil fuels had made it into the text of the final communique. But, like previous COPs, this resolution, too, is nonbinding and was reached over howls of protest from both oil-producing countries and developing countries reliant on existing energy supply chains for future growth. The tortuous nature of the outcome, watered down and officially toothless, left me feeling glum. If we can’t agree on the nature of the problem, it will be exceptionally difficult to fix it.

To offer perspective, I reached out to longtime activist Bill McKibben. A professor at Middlebury College, he has published 20 books; his first, The End of Nature, appeared in 1989. He was, along with Dr. James Hansen, one of the first to sound the climate alarm. McKibbin is a contributing writer to the New Yorker, and a founder of Third Act, which organizes people over the age of 60 to work on climate and racial justice. In collaboration with seven Middlebury students, he founded 350.org, the first global grassroots climate campaign.

How Madagascar Is Confronting Climate Change

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Madagascar is an island nation off the southeast coast of Africa that, despite its lush vegetation and unique flora and fauna, grapples with formidable environmental challenges, from rising sea levels to the excessive exploitation of natural resources. Joan Razafimaharo is an architect deeply involved in sustainability, climate change, and adaptation efforts in Madagascar and the broader Indian Ocean region. Razafimaharo is also one of only about sixty architects in the country, serving a population of 28 million.

Recently I spoke to her about environmental activism in the face of climate change, curbing the exploitation of natural resources, the role of architects in resource-scarce societies, and empowering women in isolated areas. The interview, originally conducted in French, has been translated and edited for length and clarity.

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Climate Lessons From the Floating Villages of Cambodia

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Lake Tonle Sap is a part of Cambodia’s inland water system that’s connected to the flooded forests that purify water and buffer communities from storms—an important benefit as climate change makes extreme weather more frequent. Every year from June to November, the Mekong Delta backs up into Lake Tonle Sap, creating water-depth fluctuations of up to 10 meters. The result is that land-based buildings are inundated during the rainy season, then refurbished and reoccupied again after the water recedes.

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San Francisco’s Love Affair With the Ferry Building

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Can telling the story of one building tell a larger story about the city it’s a part of? That’s the central premise of John King’s engaging new book, Portal: San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Reinvention of American Cities (W.W. Norton). The long-time urban design critic for the San Francisco Chronicle has written a brisk, lively history of this beloved edifice, which opened in 1898 and served as the principal gateway to the city until the emergence of the automobile (and the bridges that served them).

For decades it sat largely empty and neglected, cordoned off by the Embarcadero Freeway. After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, the damaged highway was eventually removed, freeing up the Ferry Building, which was given new life as a transportation hub, food hall, and office building. Last week I talked to King about the genesis for the book, the terminal’s seminal importance to the city of San Francisco, and the threat it faces from rising sea levels.

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Why Time Is a Problem for Architects

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Since the advent of Modernism, architects have become schizophrenic in dealing with the reality of time. This is a problem, because time and gravity are two universal forces. Architects are exquisitely good at dealing with gravity—it is present in everything we design. We study it and engineer its unrelenting requirements. Gravity does a symbiotic dance with structure. No matter how a design feigns weightlessness, its mass cannot be denied. Architects must deal with gravity, whether it’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s sagging balconies at Fallingwater or today’s steroidally enhanced parametric buildings.

Our Cities Aren’t Dead Yet!

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

It has been a bull market for downbeat urban reporting since the pandemic arrived in town. And it isn’t hard to see why. In 2020, central U.S. cities went from “comeback” success stories to ghost towns; transit lost nearly all ridership; tens of thousands of stores and restaurants shuttered; and many of the affluent decamped to the suburbs and distant Zoom towns.