Saturday, September 30, 2006

Making Sense of Cleveland

On Wednesday, Cleveland's PBS affiliate debuted the documentary in the latest Lincoln Institute's Making Sense of Place series, Cleveland: Confronting Decline in an American City.

Confronting Decline
like the first film in the series, Phoenix: The Urban Desert, "seeks to educate and inspire citizens to engage in a better-informed civic dialogue about social equity, diversity and economic opportunity. The goal is to promote this dialogue across a wide range of residents, policymakers, elected officials, civic leaders, advocates, activists and opinion leaders, by providing information and context for future planning in Greater Cleveland's growth and revitalization. While Cleveland is the case study in this film, the personal stories and narrations about the forces that shape current growth patterns are applicable to many other cities and regions across the country."

This one-hour documentary puts much focus on the periodic decline of the center city, the recent plague of widespread no-growth sprawl, inclinations of much of the population towards urbanism (manifest in new "urban" lifestyle centers), the decline of the area's first suburbs that resident and retail populations have left behind, and the implementation of counter-measures (such as residential and industrial land banks, brownfield cleanup, land conservancies and economic restructuring) that have become national examples.

The film describes center-city decline directly affected by migratory land-use patterns, in which infrastructure is left derelict, socio-economic classes are left behind and tax burdens become overwhelming with the demands of new infrastructures, schools and services in new urbanized areas. It is my hope that this documentary delivers the choice of "smart-growth" urbanism to the living rooms of suburbanites who have already considered a certain "moral responsibility" when purchasing a hybrid Honda, giving to Harvest-for-Hunger, recycling their soda bottles, voting, yoga-ing, eating their vegetables.... but still live in an Avon cul-de-sac, unaware of the opportunity to make a choice on where they live that will benefit a large part of the region's population as well as create a healthier life for themselves.

The film will next air Sunday, October 1 at 11am on WVIZ. In the months ahead screenings and discussions will be scheduled locally and Cleveland: Confronting Decline in an American City will begin airing on other public television stations across the country.

Below, a number of images of derelict industri-urban fabric from recent explorations of Cleveland's Flats:


Friday, September 29, 2006

Kunstler, P.II

Today, I came across "A reflection on cities of the future," published yesterday in the Energy Bulletin. In this article, James Kunstler responds to architects' contemporary visions of cities' futures from Le Corbusier and his Plan Voisin to the new generation of "mojo architect savants" to the New Urbanists. Kunstler applies his observations of the present and predictions of the future described in The Long Emergency to these future cities.

"A reflection on cities of the future" seems to be reasonable Cliff's Notes version of Kunstler's full length book (if one doesn't read Emergency anytime soon)- as well a great complement to my in-progress reading of Kunstler's The Long Emergency.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

If You Build It

To attract tourist dollars and resurrect dying (or emerging) urban centers, it has become common practice today in American cities to blend cultural institutions, convention centers, sports venues, and luxury housing accompanied by a brand-name architecture. In this weekend's NYTimes, Nicolai Ouroussoff considers the new cultural monuments designed in Midwestern cities' Minneapolis, Denver and Toledo, the latest among those looking to capture the "Bilbao effect."

While skeptical of most big plans that he describes as "developer-driven formulas: an insipid blend of cultural tourism and corporate homogeneity that can produce urban centers littered with a range of architectural statements yet nonetheless hollow at the core," he notes that in many Midwestern cities, "the civic spirit often feels more vigorous than in global cities like Los Angeles and New York, which increasingly resemble playgrounds for the rich. The result (in the Midwest) is often a more experimental brand of architecture" and seemingly more successful.

Generally, Ouroussoff looks favorably on the latest additions to these cities, recognizing the "sincere effort to repair torn fabric." In particular, he notes that Toledo's new Glass Pavilion is "a project that revives one's faith in the ability of architecture - in its purest form - to have lasting impact on how we experience our cities." Among other buildings reviewed, Denver's new Frederic C. Hamilton Building, Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater and the Minneapolis Public Library.

With the latest round of completions and announcements of local cultural landmarks: Akron Art Museum, MOCA, Cleveland Institute of Art, Natural History Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, Convention Center, casino, Medical Merchandise Mart and recent revitalization efforts through the completion of the Gateway Sports Complex, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Great Lakes Science Center, it seems Greater Cleveland is as determined as any other city to shed its soot-covered overcoat for a new silver city. In concert, it still stands to be seen whether these monuments will elevate the city to a hightened maturity, or litter urban areas with monumental design mistakes.

It must be considered, that recent complementary projects of corridor and infrastructure rebuilding, residential construction and planning, and building rehabilitations suggest an indication that these monuments may be (or have been) the lynchpins in smart urban re-growth. I have yet to decide - regardless, the next decade will be fascinating to observe.

Note: In October, after a visit to Toledo's new Glass Pavilion, expect images and additional commentary.


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Long Emergency - A Prologue

After a strong recommendation (and disclaimer about the sleepless nights that will follow) I have just begun to read The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twentieth Century by James Howard Kunstler. Having read Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere a few years ago, and considering it among the more intriguing social commentaries of the evolution of the American urban landscape (and one which had significant influence in my developing urban 'ethos'), I look forward to diving into Kunstler's latest undertaking. This time, he states, he will concern himself with what he believes is happening and what will happen or is likely to happen to our lives in the post-industrial decades to come.

It begins:
"Above all, and most immediately, we face the end of the cheap fossil fuel era. It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as a benefit to modern life. All the necessities, comforts, luxuries, and miracles of our time - central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lighting, cheap clothing, recorded music, movies, supermarkets, power tools, hip replacement surgery, the national defense, you name it - owe their origins or continued existence in one way or another to cheap fossil fuel... The blandishments of cheap oil and gas were so seductive, and induced such transports of mesmerizing contentment, that we ceased paying attention to the essential nature of these miraculous gifts from the earth: that they exist in finite, nonrenewable supplies, unevenly distributed around the world."

Expect reaction and commentary within the following week...


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Thank you!

On a general note, I just wanted to recognize our regular and consistent readership and the few who have subscribed to The Design Rag since its beginning only a few months ago. While replies continue to be produced between The Design Rag contributors, your presense is acknowledged and very much appreciated. We expect that your quiet consistency is a gesture of support in our endeavor. As always, we encourage you to join in the discussion, whether comment, tidbit or criticism. Many of you are local (while we hope to be relevant to a universal audience) and likely familiar with our discussion - your thoughts are a welcome addition.

It is our intention for The Design Rag to be an experiment as a sort of digital journal of relevant architecture and urban topics. While we hope that our experience in this forum can lead to the creation of a print publication (in some capacity in a not-so-distant future) what the blog format allows (unlike any print journal could) is an instant and facilitated means to respond. We hope to continue to fully utilize this advantage. In addition, any input on the presentation or format of The Design Rag is also appreciated - contact the new Design Rag email address for this or any other reason.

The Design Rag


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

How to Improve an “Architectural Masterpiece”

In the past few years, several contemporary libraries have received considerable attention in the architectural media, particularly Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library. I have always been curious about how well these structures serve library patrons. A recent Seattle Post Intelligencer article entitled “Too Many People Getting Lost in New Downtown Library” by Kery Murakami sheds light on one problem with Koolhaas’s design. As the title explains, patrons are getting lost within the building. It is ironic that libraries’ purpose is to connect people with their information needs and the architecture is actually interfering with that process.

However, successful library design is requires more than clear layouts and Koolhaas’s design may be successful in other respects (I have heard mixed reviews ranging from an excellent place to too cold and inhospitable. I have yet to make it to Seattle to form my own opinion.).

The problem is being resolved with a $49,000 way-finding consultant that will place signage throughout the building. This move demonstrates that the problem is rather large. Librarians are not printing out paper signs and posting them. Rather the library requires outside assistance.

If I were Koolhaas, I would be embarrassed that an outside consultant is needed to realign the architecture with the institution’s purpose. But then again that is just me.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Ethnic Arteries

A long bus ride to Chicago last weekend gave me plenty of time to catch up on a little reading. While taking the I-90 ride through Cleveland's westside exurbs, past the University of Notre Dame, through gritty Gary and within spitting distance of the White Sox new home (while proudly sporting my Tribe ballcap), I read through much of "Cleveland: A Metropolitan Reader", a collection of essays compiled in the late nineties on the history of social, economic and cultural change. The "Metropolitan Reader," suggests that Cleveland's history of change typifies the struggles and successes in the histories of most American cities - proposing, "Cleveland is a composite of the issues and movements that generally constitute American urban history... Central among these characteristics are privatism, economic restructuring, and ethnicity and race." The book grew from a lecture series at the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs in '90 and '91 in which one set of lectures titled "Changing Urban Practice: Lessons from Cleveland" recounted practices in planning, policy and economic development that changed the City for the better and had instructive value for urban practice in other cities.

After spending some time in a new Polish neighborhood north of Chicago and reading reoccuring commentary on the importance of attracting new populations of immigrants to re-inhabit Cleveland's older urban neighborhoods, Edward Miggins' essay Between Spires and Stacks: The People & Neighborhoods of Cleveland was of particular interest. The essay follows the growth of Cleveland through its waves of ethnic groups and how the villages and neighborhoods created a cultural "mosaic" of development instead of the mythical melting pot that American cities are typically characterized as. While I, as well as most Clevelanders, understand the notion of ethnic "places" such as Little Italy, Slavic Village, Irishtown Bend and Chinatown, some which have retained its character and others since extant, Miggins identifies a more striking pattern of ethnic migration within the city along major arteries. He identifies "Detroit for Irish; Lorain for Germans; St. Clair for Slovenians and Croatians; Mayfield and Euclid for Italians; Kinsman and Woodland for Jews, Italians and Hungarians; Broadway for Poles and Czechs; and West 25th for Ukrainians and Poles." Typical in industrial cities with a history of early suburbanization, these ethnic "conveyor belts", seemingly, are more identifiable as the centers of these nationality groups' history instead of old-world-style village centers.

I traveled two of the west-reaching ethnic arteries from Downtown Cleveland to the postwar suburbs. Above is an aerial graphic locating Lorain Road (top) and West 25th Street/Pearl Road (bottom). Below are a few images from each route, tracing the Polish artery from Cleveland to Parma and the German artery from Cleveland to Fairview Park.

What can be drawn from these local migration patterns? (In my estimation)
Historically, the notion of neighborhood is described with definable edges or centered around shared public spaces. Consider, however, that most American urbanism centers around major public/private corridors and a history of moving in one direction or another along a corridor (yesterday a streetcar route, today an interstate highway) - instead of the melting pot or ethnic mosaic, a city composed of linear strands creating urban 'fabric.' Euclid Avenue, Lorain Avenue, West Sixth Street, Mayfield Road, Coventry Road, I-271, for example, reveal tradition and define the culture and character of this City better than Public Square, Lincoln Park or the Public Mall ever will. Recognizing that the heart of Cleveland commerce and public life is along these 'strands' can focus successful future planning and development in a way that crosses boundaries, connects feifdoms and reverses the direction of migration back into urban neighborhoods. Coordinated efforts to re-focus incentives and reconstruction along these multi-municipality corridors, in much the same way the Euclid Corridor project aims to achieve, will have a strong effect on creating a new healthy City. The tradition of American (especially Cleveland) urban spaces does not concentrate around neighborhood parks and plazas but around its streets and highways.

I highly recommend picking through the "Metropolitan Reader." An easy read, some of the essays include Cleveland: The Making and Remaking of an American City; Politics and the Development of Public Housing; Urban Populism, Fiscal Crisis, and the New Political Economy; Who Governs: The Corporate Hand; Housing: New Lessons, New Models.


Friday, September 01, 2006

Alien Spaceship Landing in Akron

While visiting downtown Akron this past week, I was able to capture a single photo of progress on Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Akron Art Museum before my camera’s battery died. Unfortunately, it was not the best weather for photographing either. Better photos (and commentary) will be posted in the future.