Tag Archives: reflections

Mixed-use Suburbs

Some days ago, at the conference “desperate houses” at the EPFL, I heard about a  research, realized by the architectural firm Raumbureau, saying that, in the suburbs, around 1 over 5 houses is refurbished as office space.

If this tendence goes on:

  • Little by little, suburbs will become true villages with offices, shops, post offices, sall hospitals… (a similar project was shown at the conference),
  • Density is not the only solution to urban sprawl, other solutions (much more “open source”) are available,
  • The houses in Aigle, which I saw some days ago, can become something really interesting in a few years!

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retrofitting suburbia in 3 steps

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(photo: flickr)

This month, everybody talks about suburbs (and about the prominent feature of suburbs, cars): some posts on RSR website (here, here and here), the last edition of the forum Ecoparc: So, it’s the right moment to talk about this subject, and to propose a strategy to align autorities and developers’ interests.

1 – Complete the streets

First step, completely in the hands of public powers, is completing the streets. In many cases, people drive instead of walking because roads are designed for cars rather than for people. Let’s see some examples:

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Aigle. Sidewalks are too small. Pedestrians are not protected from traffic

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Aigle. Vehicles-only road

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Aigle. Crossing forbidden (but people cross here anyway)

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Aigle. Pedestrian underpass, not very appealing.

And here, some good examples:

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Aigle. Trees, sidewalks and outdoor cafés.

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Aigle. side street.

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Aigle. Landscaped entrance to the shopping center (with bus shelter included)

2 – Allow and promote mixed-use developments

In this case too, public powers have the choice. A good zoning code should allow suburbs to be reconverted into  mixed-use districts, in order to reduce distances between houses, shops and workplaces.

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Aigle: houses on this side street could be easily turned into shops.

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Garages: this space could be easily be turned into shops or ateliers

(image: flickr)

3 – Crowdsourcing

The first two steps were were dedicated to public powers, the third one is dedicated to developers. Single-family houses and cars are, above all, industrial products, sold with a well-established marketing policy. So, mixed-use development should be marketed focusing on things that single-family houses couldn’t offer: common spaces, a vibrant community, walkable neighborhoods. At the same time, mixed-use development should keep the image of a customized house in a natural environment, image that made the single-family house so popular.

A good way to achieve this goal could be crowdsourcing: build a Cohousing or Coworking community, organize events in order to make future cohousers/coworker meet (i.e. a few-days trip) then go on all together to a developer  in order to build our dream’s  home. And the community could create new synergies and promote new features, like co-buying and mobility plans.

Ada Lovelace day: Jane Jacobs

Today is Ada Lovelace day, a day in which each blogger should talk about a woman who changed the world in her field: a good occasion to talk about the person who gave the biggest contribute to contemporary urbanism, Jane Jacobs.

XIX and early XX century were the century of machines, a century in which the mainstream idea was the possibility to explain everything as the sum of a series of deterministic movements. Cities were explained on the same principles, and deterministic solutions were proposed to solve the problems concerning urban development.

drancy_-_les_premiers_gratte-ciel_de_la_region_parisienne_

(image: wikimedia commons)

Jane Jacobs was the first to show the limits of this approach, showing how it led to a car dependent, socially impoverished society. Against the deterministic approach of mainstream architecture, she proposed an approach based on life sciences,  stating that cities grow in the same way as living organism do.

Most of her battles were against new expressways and neighborhood destructions, and now most of her ideas are supported by the new urbanism and complete streets movements.

For further readings:

Refurbishing the 60’s masterpieces: two examples from Rome

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The city within a building – Mario Fiorentino

In the last 50 years, we have built a massive amount of buildings, experimenting techniques and philosophies as never before. Reinforced concrete, cheap energy and cars allowed us a freedom to build that we never experienced before.

Now, many of the ideas behind them look outdated, and the building themselves are approaching the end of their lifecycle, and , so, deciding of their future will be one of the main challenges architects will face in the next years.

  • What shall we do with buildings that are growing old, need a massive renovation, but are a strong part of our heritage? Shall we save them as they are, adapt them to our comntemporary exigences, or admit they are too old and too expensive to be restore, and tear everything down?
  • In 50 years, will we regret our choices concerning the 50-years old buildings we decided to destroy, to keep or to renovate?
  • When we build our contemporary building, how shall we consider their future?

Let’s start with an example: La Rinascente in .

La rinascente

(photo: skyscrapercity)

Architects: Franco Albini/Franca Helg
Client: La Rinascente
Location: Rome, Italy
Project year: 1957-1961


(video: Fjfm)

La Rinascente is considered as one of the Italian Modernism’s masterpieces. Located in a strategic place, just outside the historic town, La Rinascente imitates the classical decoration of the surrounding buildings using a steel-framed structure. Every element of classical architecture is recreated in steel, and has a specific role in the building structure: the horizontal beams become trigliphs, the vertical beams columns and capitals, and the maintenance rails become the building’s main frieze. The space between columns is filled with precast concrete panels, featuring a white-and-red, waved texture.

La Rinascente is a masterpiece whose preservation will be problematic in the near future. Conceived in a period in which energy was cheap and environment was not a major concern, the building depends heavily on artificial lighting and air conditioned, and has almost no windows. Adapting it to current energy standards implies a massive refurbishment, and will hardly be possible without providing sources of natural lighting, opening windows on the façade and changing some of the features of the building.

Let’s go on with another example, still in Rome, but this time in the suburbs: Corviale.

(photo: flickr)

Architect: Mario Fiorentino
Client: IACP (social housing institute)
Location: Rome, Italy
Project year: 1972-1982

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(image: flickr)

(image: flickr)

Promoted as “The city within a building”, Corviale takes the principles of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, and reunites all of them into a, 11-storey, 1-km long single building, hosting 1200 apartments and 6000 people. 5 main stairways allow people to enter the building, and a secondary network of stairs and walkways spread throughout the entire building. The 4th floor was reserved to shops, offices and small business, allowing the community to be entirely self-sufficient. All apartments would enjoy an optimal solar lighting, and an amazing view over the city of Rome.

To further show the experimental tone of the intervention, a special signage was commissioned, as well as 5 sculptures, to be positioned in front of the 5 main entrances.

(video: Fjfm)

Even though the architects had full freedom, and even if the building had an enthousiastic review from both public authorities and the press, it turned into a complete failure: the 4th floor was never able to attract shops and business, and little by little got squatted, turning into a “flying favela”.

The other floor had a similar destiny: given to low-income families, they became a big ghetto, and now the entire building is considered as “The symbol of a failed utopia”.

All along the years, lots of different programs have been established in order to improve the inhabitants’ lifestyle: shopping centers all around the main building, schools and sport facilities, and an animation program, including a street TV and an incubator for young entrepreneurs. Some programs shave succeeded, some others have failed, but none of them has been able to turn Corviale into an appealing place to visit and live.

And, 30 years later, concrete is starting to crack.

(this post was originally published on ArchDaily.com)

Architecture and complexity

One of the things that create a great built environment is complexity. When facing big projects, most of the architects have tried to recreate a complexity in their buildings, with a big effort and not very satisfying results.

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Moshe Safdie, Habitat 67 (image: wikipedia)

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Frank Gehry, MIT Stata Center (image: wikipedia)

Another option allows a better result with lower effort. Instead of planning every single element, we can just design some “seeds” of the building, then wait. Even when seeds are simple, the result turns often amazingly complex.

An example of this kind of architecture is the Quinta Monroy housing project by Elemental.

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Quinta Monroy, just before the arrival of the dwellers (image: ArchDaily)

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The same view, some months later. dwellers have arrived, and have modified houses to match their needs. As a result, all houses are different from each other.  (image: ArchDaily)

For further reading:

The future of automobile infrastructure: Antonio Segni Bridge, Rome

Usually, a highway is a mono-functional road, designed to carry cars from one place to another at a maximum speed.  But, sometimes highways don’t carry so many cars as expected,  and other uses start to appear.

An example of the re-use of highways was the Antonio Segni Bridge in Northern Rome, the east-west road in the photo here below.

vigne-nuove

(image: microsoft virtual earth)

Designed to be part of the Milan-Naples highway, the Antonio Segni Bridge has survived as an isolated stretch when the motorway was re-routed on a more external path. Closed to traffic for almost ten years, it has become the favorite place for pedestrians and cyclists’ sunday strolls. When it was opened to motorized traffic, few cars passed on the Bridge, and pedestrian and cyclists still continued to use its sidewalks as a shortcut to reach otherwise far neighborhoods.

Some improvement could be made in order to make the bridge a more interesting place:

  • wider sidewalks and zebra crossings.
  • more pedestrian connections to nearby neighborhood.
  • a landscaped median.

Here is a similar example, from Minneapolis:

video: streetsblog.org

Lagado and Balinarbi

The continent, as far as it is subject to the monarch of the flying island, passes under the general name of BALNIBARBI; and the metropolis, as I said before, is called LAGADO. I felt some little satisfaction in finding myself on firm ground. I walked to the city without any concern, being clad like one of the natives, and sufficiently instructed to converse with them. I soon found out the person’s house to whom I was recommended, presented my letter from his friend the grandee in the island, and was received with much kindness. This great lord, whose name was Munodi, ordered me an apartment in his own house, where I continued during my stay, and was entertained in a most hospitable manner.

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(image: wikipedia)

The next morning after my arrival, he took me in his chariot to see the town, which is about half the bigness of London; but the houses very strangely built, and most of them out of repair. The people in the streets walked fast, looked wild, their eyes fixed, and were generally in rags. We passed through one of the town gates, and went about three miles into the country, where I saw many labourers working with several sorts of tools in the ground, but was not able to conjecture what they were about: neither did observe any expectation either of corn or grass, although the soil appeared to be excellent. I could not forbear admiring at these odd appearances, both in town and country; and I made bold to desire my conductor, that he would be pleased to explain to me, what could be meant by so many busy heads, hands, and faces, both in the streets and the fields, because I did not discover any good effects they produced; but, on the contrary, I never knew a soil so unhappily cultivated, houses so ill contrived and so ruinous, or a people whose countenances and habit expressed so much misery and want.

This lord Munodi was a person of the first rank, and had been some years governor of Lagado; but, by a cabal of ministers, was discharged for insufficiency. However, the king treated him with tenderness, as a well-meaning man, but of a low contemptible understanding.

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(image: wikipedia)

When I gave that free censure of the country and its inhabitants, he made no further answer than by telling me, “that I had not been long enough among them to form a judgment; and that the different nations of the world had different customs;” with other common topics to the same purpose. But, when we returned to his palace, he asked me “how I liked the building, what absurdities I observed, and what quarrel I had with the dress or looks of his domestics?” This he might safely do; because every thing about him was magnificent, regular, and polite. I answered, “that his excellency’s prudence, quality, and fortune, had exempted him from those defects, which folly and beggary had produced in others.” He said, “if I would go with him to his country-house, about twenty miles distant, where his estate lay, there would be more leisure for this kind of conversation.” I told his excellency “that I was entirely at his disposal;” and accordingly we set out next morning.

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(image: wikipedia)

During our journey he made me observe the several methods used by farmers in managing their lands, which to me were wholly unaccountable; for, except in some very few places, I could not discover one ear of corn or blade of grass. But, in three hours travelling, the scene was wholly altered; we came into a most beautiful country; farmers’ houses, at small distances, neatly built; the fields enclosed, containing vineyards, corn-grounds, and meadows. Neither do I remember to have seen a more delightful prospect. His excellency observed my countenance to clear up; he told me, with a sigh, “that there his estate began, and would continue the same, till we should come to his house: that his countrymen ridiculed and despised him, for managing his affairs no better, and for setting so ill an example to the kingdom; which, however, was followed by very few, such as were old, and wilful, and weak like himself.”

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(image: wikipedia)

We came at length to the house, which was indeed a noble structure, built according to the best rules of ancient architecture. The fountains, gardens, walks, avenues, and groves, were all disposed with exact judgment and taste. I gave due praises to every thing I saw, whereof his excellency took not the least notice till after supper; when, there being no third companion, he told me with a very melancholy air “that he doubted he must throw down his houses in town and country, to rebuild them after the present mode; destroy all his plantations, and cast others into such a form as modern usage required, and give the same directions to all his tenants, unless he would submit to incur the censure of pride, singularity, affectation, ignorance, caprice, and perhaps increase his majesty’s displeasure; that the admiration I appeared to be under would cease or diminish, when he had informed me of some particulars which, probably, I never heard of at court, the people there being too much taken up in their own speculations, to have regard to what passed here below.”

The sum of his discourse was to this effect: “That about forty years ago, certain persons went up to Laputa, either upon business or diversion, and, after five months continuance, came back with a very little smattering in mathematics, but full of volatile spirits acquired in that airy region: that these persons, upon their return, began to dislike the management of every thing below, and fell into schemes of putting all arts, sciences, languages, and mechanics, upon a new foot. To this end, they procured a royal patent for erecting an academy of projectors in Lagado; and the humour prevailed so strongly among the people, that there is not a town of any consequence in the kingdom without such an academy. In these colleges the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments, and tools for all trades and manufactures; whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase a hundred fold more than they do at present; with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes. By all which, instead of being discouraged, they are fifty times more violently bent upon prosecuting their schemes, driven equally on by hope and despair: that as for himself, being not of an enterprising spirit, he was content to go on in the old forms, to live in the houses his ancestors had built, and act as they did, in every part of life, without innovation: that some few other persons of quality and gentry had done the same, but were looked on with an eye of contempt and ill-will, as enemies to art, ignorant, and ill common-wealth’s men, preferring their own ease and sloth before the general improvement of their country.”

His lordship added, “That he would not, by any further particulars, prevent the pleasure I should certainly take in viewing the grand academy, whither he was resolved I should go.” He only desired me to observe a ruined building, upon the side of a mountain about three miles distant, of which he gave me this account: “That he had a very convenient mill within half a mile of his house, turned by a current from a large river, and sufficient for his own family, as well as a great number of his tenants; that about seven years ago, a club of those projectors came to him with proposals to destroy this mill, and build another on the side of that mountain, on the long ridge whereof a long canal must be cut, for a repository of water, to be conveyed up by pipes and engines to supply the mill, because the wind and air upon a height agitated the water, and thereby made it fitter for motion, and because the water, descending down a declivity, would turn the mill with half the current of a river whose course is more upon a level.” He said, “that being then not very well with the court, and pressed by many of his friends, he complied with the proposal; and after employing a hundred men for two years, the work miscarried, the projectors went off, laying the blame entirely upon him, railing at him ever since, and putting others upon the same experiment, with equal assurance of success, as well as equal disappointment.”

(Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s travels, part III, chapter IV , 1726)

Also read:

Annie Leonard, the story of stuff

(mini)marketing, il cliente affezionato è un costo

CoolTownStudios, the american dream comes full circle

The 21st Century Medieval City

When we think of medieval cities, we assume it was something like this:

(image: Siena, from wikipedia)

while, at that time, it was more likely to be something like this:

(image: Rio de Janeiro, from wikipedia)

This is the thesis of Robert Neuwirth, who studied from (and lived in) what he calls “the 21st Century Medieval City”. The video here below shows the results of his studies:

(The slides behind his speech can be found in a better resolution here, the original video is here)

According to him, these places are fully-developped cities, full of economical activities and with a surprisingly high level of organization. The thing that differenciate most them from the “official” city is the complete lack of debt: people build houses and infrastructure according to their financial possibilities, while most of the official city uses debt in order to grow.

And so,  public powers should focus on the best way to integrate them in the official city. Neuwirth proposes these strategies:

  1. Guarantee  the “21st century medieval city” dwellers a right to stay. This will let them make long-term planning and allow them to build them better buildings.
  2. Give political rights to the inhabitants of the “21st century medieval city”. This will allow them to lobby for their community and provide all the things the community needs.
  3. Provide infrastructure. Infrastructures need a higher level of organization, that can be more easily provided  by an organized political structure.

A result of these strategies can look like the images below:

(images: Naples Metro, Salvator Rosa station, from wikipedia)
A question remains open: how can all these strategies be integrated in a sustainable land use planning?(source: The Long Now Foundation)

Shared Space

Two kind of space exist: The highway, regulated by signs, and the public realm, regulated by social rules. But lots of public realms are designed as highways.

source: shared space

Paris RER E vs. Rome Metro B: same spaces, different comfort

Following a discussion about Rome Metro, I found a comapraison between Rome B line and Washington Metro. According to different surveys, Rome Metro is considered one of the most unwelcoming ones: in order to change its perception, lots of long and expensive plans are currently going to improve comfort (see here and here). Anyway, some cheaper and easier interventions could improve passengers’ comfort with less time and less money.

Let’s look for example at Paris RER E.

The current terminus, Haussmann-Saint Lazare:

The following station, Magenta:

And now, let’s look at Rome metro, Line B, Station “Termini”:

Paris RER and rome Metro’s architecture are basically the same: a big vaulted space, including both directions’s track and platform, and smaller vaulted spaces, hosting escalators. Anyway, small differences change dramatically the place’s perception:

  • Paris RER uses strong and warm lights, which are able to give a feeling of “home”, while Rome Metro uses standard neons, which give a general sense of coldness
  • Paris RER integrates station names into the station’s architecture, while Rome Metro uses standard signs in every stations
  • Paris RER integrates different materials in a global design, while in Rome Metro each intervention follows its own concept without integrating with the rest of the environment.

An intervention on Rome Metro could include:

  • A new lighting concept, which would emphatize the architectural structure of the station,
  • New floor and wall tiles,
  • A new lettering and signage concept.

(source of all images: wikipedia)