Conserving Our Cities

Historic preservation in American cities presents special problems that do not exist elsewhere. This blog discusses the unique situations of individual cities and potential uses of conservation in different contexts.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Why This Blog has Deviated from its Original Purpose

As the title and description suggest, I originally intended this blog to focus specifically on historic preservation. However, as it developed, I realized that a lot of what I wanted to write about was not restricted solely to that field, but sometimes crossed over into architecture. While I had initially planned to avoid expanding the scope of the blog, in retrospect I am glad that I did. I do not feel that I abandoned the original purpose of the blog completely by shifting its focus in this way, but rather improved upon the existing structure by giving the posts some variety, which was previously lacking. The first two posts, along with the comments on other blogs which my third post links to, carried out my intention of discussing problems related to reservation in American cities, but even here I was unconsciously drifting into city planning. I may have considered that a mistake at first, but if I had not added that extra dimension to my arguments from the beginning, I believe it would have been more difficult to assimilate my later posts, which deviated even further from preservation. The mistake was in thinking that I needed to limit myself to such a narrow topic in the first place.

The two most recent posts, on famous architect Denise Scott Brown and the Monticello Explorer website, could perhaps be related better to the rest of the blog, but this could probably be done through the framework of the blog itself, especially the description, rather than modification of the essays; I would not want to force preservation into them if it did not fit naturally. However, I do see connections between the subjects and preservation. The post evaluating the Monticello Explorer relates the website to architecture, but the very nature of the house evokes ideas of preservation. Both the website and the physical building are operated by the Jefferson Foundation, which is dedicated to the history of the man and his home. Monticello is not only on the National Register of Historic Places, it is also the only residence in the United States to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The post also mentions issues related to the upkeep of the building, particularly the inaccessibility of the top two floors because of fire codes.

The most recent post, which suggests Denise Scott Brown as a candidate for an honorary doctorate from the University of Southern California, is perhaps more closely related to planning than preservation. Scott Brown uses her planning background in all of her projects, and her most well-known book, Learning from Las Vegas, uses that city’s unusual, unplanned organization as an argument for the validity of popular culture in design. Also, many of her firm’s projects are additions to or improvements upon existing structures, especially when the client is a university. Whether or not these posts mesh especially well with the rest of the blog, I feel that they are individually as cohesive as possible in their current state, and they keep the blog from being repetitive; I would hesitate to change them just to relate them better to previous posts.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Degree Progress: Denise Scott Brown

Every spring, universities across America follow a long-standing tradition of awarding honorary degrees to distinguished individuals with whom the schools want to associate themselves. This practice is partly a way to recognize excellence in the community, but it also serves as a very public way for a university to delineate the qualities it values most. Not many people who have received honorary degrees hold only one of them; when one institution deems a person worthy of the honor, others are likely to follow suit. Denise Scott Brown, one of the most important architects and architectural theorists of the twentieth century, currently holds eleven honorary doctorates from schools in the US and abroad, among numerous other awards. In its overview of the degree conferment process, the University of Southern California says that it is "particularly interested in candidates from diverse backgrounds, and whose own accomplishments might serve to highlight areas in which the University has developed exceptional strength." Judging by its recent selections, USC is not sticking to this guideline very well, but honoring remarkable individuals like Denise Scott Brown could help to bring this practice back to where it should be.

Although she lived outside the Unites States until her late twenties, since then Scott Brown has been actively involved in higher education in the United States as a student, professor, author, and guest lecturer. Venturi, Scott Brown, and Associates, the Philadelphia-
based architectural firm she runs with her husband Robert Venturi, has also developed a penchant for designing university buildings and spaces recently.
She is sought after by many of the most respected architecture schools in the country. USC, home to one such school, has long used her work in the classroom, which should be an indication that she might qualify for an honorary degree from the school. USC’s Central Role and Mission describes its goal as "the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit," and the school (sometimes) uses the granting of honorary degrees as a way to show students and the public exactly who it believes has achieved such cultivation and enrichment. As the award site explains, USC’s main goal in awarding these degrees is to "elevate the university in the eyes of the world by honoring individuals who are widely known and highly regarded for achievements in their respective fields of endeavor." The school obviously recognizes Scott Brown as an authority in her field, which is one of the main (official) criteria for degree conferment, but she has not been deemed worthy of the honor yet.

The criteria universities use in selecting appropriate honorands roughly correspond to the sources of meaning outlined by Mike Martin. In his book Meaningful Work: Rethinking Professional Ethics, Martin writes that "we might sort professionals’ desires, pleasures, and sources of meaning into three broad categories: craft, compensation, and moral concern," which correspond to "the very definition of professions: advanced expertise, social recognition, and service to clients and community" (21). The recipients of honorary degrees have distinguished themselves as experts within their fields and have been recognized as such, and they have also served the greater community in some way, whether directly through their work or not. Scott Brown’s expertise is apparent, but her service to the community is different than what might usually be expected, as it tends to involve her work directly. In an article about her recieving the Radcliffe Medal, the Harvard Gazette argues that Scott Brown has "helped significantly to redirect the mainstream of modern architecture since the mid-1960s. No architect studying or in practice can have avoided her work or missed her call to broaden architecture to include ideas on pluralism and multiculturalism." While awards of this type are very prestigious, her social recognition is not quite as complete as it should be - people do not recognize her name as readily as her husband's, but USC could help to change that. The school asserts that it is interested in awarding outstanding individuals “whether or not they are widely known by the general public,” so it should not matter especially that non-architects may not know who she is.

As is the case with most universities, past honorands have traditionally tended to fit other criteria than those the schools claim to use. Freedman, President Emeritus of the University of Iowa and Dartmouth College, writes that "until recent decades, men were the overwhelming, if not exclusive, choices for honorary degrees" (120). While women are now more commonly considered, they are still a minority among awardees. Most recipients were also previously affiliated with the university in some way, as students, professors, trustees, or benefactors. However, the nomination guidelines ask for "individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the welfare and development of USC or the communities of which they are a part," so (in theory) that affiliation is not required. If the school is in fact aiming for diversity among honorands, adding some more women to the mix would be a good start. Of course, it would not make sense to honor women who are not supremely qualified for this award, but there are many who do fit that description, and Denise Scott Brown is one of them. In addition to being a respected architect, planner, author, and lecturer, she contributed to some of the most controversial and influential architectural ideas of the twentieth century. The theories that she and her husband, Robert Venturi, set forth in seminal books like Learning From Las Vegas (which includes their famous classification of buildings as "ducks" or "decorated sheds") were radical for their time, and have since become standard reading in architecture schools worldwide. Las Vegas has been the basis for all of their firm's work. In the June 2001 issue of Interview, Scott Brown said "I believe if you have one idea in your life, you're very lucky. What's happened to us is we've been able to build on that one idea through all the different experiences we've had." Since Scott Brown’s work has been assimilated and canonized, it should acceptable enough to institutions wishing to avoid too much controversy in its choices of honorands, as USC tends to do.

As often happens when a man and a woman collaborate on anything, especially in traditionally patriarchal fields like architecture, most people assume the man is the primary authority. Though Venturi and Scott Brown continue to stress that they work together as equal partners, outsiders unfailingly see Venturi as the more important contributor and always list Scott Brown’s name second, if at all. The pair has often been granted the same award at once but this is likely because such a double-award is fashionable; as Freedman says, "many institutions have realized that husbands and wives make a fetching combination for degree-granting occasions" (127). The University of Pennsylvania, which Scott Brown attended and they both taught at simultaneously, took fourteen years longer to award her an honorary doctorate than it took for Venturi. She deserves just as much credit for their collaborative work as her husband, and if USC were to recognize her without also giving Venturi the same honor it would speak volumes about the school’s commitment to diversity. Freedman points out that "honorary degrees are, of course, one of the ways in which universities advertise themselves" (125). Scott Brown would highlight different aspects of the school than the honorands commonly represent.

A partial list of USC’s recent honorands is available at the honorary degrees section of the university’s website. More than half of the recipients over the past five years were awarded the Doctorate of Humane Letters, and most of the remaining degrees were Doctorates of Science. There were only two exceptions: John Williams received a Doctorate of Music, and Robert Zemeckis was awarded a Doctorate of Fine Arts. The last architect to be conferred a USC degree was Frank Gehry in 2000. Gehry is one of the most famous alumni of USC’s architecture department, so it is only natural that the school should want to play up its association with him. This does not mean, though, that architects who do not currently have any affiliation with the school are any less deserving of its recognition. Forming new associations with accomplished professionals like Scott Brown could be beneficial to the school because it would expand the university’s apparent sphere of influence and illustrate its tolerance and respect for diverse ideas and viewpoints.

Since VSBA is based out of Philadelphia, most of their affiliations are with east coast universities and clients; USC would be the first school in California to grant Scott Brown an honorary degree, though she has received them from eleven other institutions. This in itself is something USC does not make use of often enough – people who are basically removed from the Southern California scene. Scott Brown truly has the advantage of an outsider’s perspective. According to the Encarta article on her, "She was born in Nkana, Zambia, and raised in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. She attended the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg from 1948 to1952, and then studied at the Architectural Association in London, England." She then worked in England and Italy before moving to the US to earn masters degrees in city planning and architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s. Her relative isolation from American culture in her early life made her first visit to Las Vegas in the ‘60s even more shocking and fascinating, and is part of what prompted her and Venturi to begin studying the visual language of the city as part of their postmodernist theory of design.

According to Encarta, Scott Brown "designed the Learning from Las Vegas and Learning from Levittown studio classes" at Yale as the first stage in her exploration of her spatial experience of Las Vegas. As part of these “innovative collaborative research courses, architects studied problems in the built environment using empirical methods and drawing from media studies, pop art, and social science-thus greatly expanding the scope of architectural design.” These courses paved the way for the book which followed a few years later. The timeline feature of VSBA’s award-winning website explains how "Learning from Las Vegas created a healthy controversy on its appearance in 1972, calling for architects to be more receptive to the tastes and values of ‘common’ people and the commercial vernacular and less immodest in their erections of ‘heroic,’ self-aggrandizing monuments." These ideas were completely at odds with the prevailing modernist focus on the architect’s grand vision and buildings as objects which were to stand out from their surroundings rather than work within a greater context. If Le Corbusier (one of the most famous Modernist architects of the twentieth century and a favorite in the USC architecture school) were alive when this book came out, it would have given him a heart attack. USC’s honorary degree page states that originality is important in nominees, and Scott Brown is definitely unique.

This idea of valuing different (and even opposing) points of view might in fact be something Scott Brown could discuss in the commencement address, which one of the honorands typically delivers. USC asks anyone nominating a person for an honorary degree to consider the "specific content of the nominee's contribution" to society and "what is original about that contribution," and her team-focused working methods are both original and relevant to USC students. She understands the need for individuals to challenge conventions and push the boundaries of a field in order to expand it and create meaning. She has an extremely diverse background, and her experience with related fields such as urban planning help her to bring different ideas to the table and contribute to the multifaceted nature of VSBA’s projects. Martin, a professor of philosophy at Chapman University, writes that "professions are based on advanced expertise that combines theory-based understanding, practical know-how, and liberal learning" (22). Scott Brown definitely has all of these and makes use of them in her work.

Ms. Scott Brown's profile on her firm’s website describes her as "an architect, planner and urban designer, and a respected theorist, writer and educator, whose work and ideas have influenced architects and planners worldwide." It also points out that she works on "the broad range of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates’ projects in architecture and is principal-in-charge for many projects in urban planning, urban design, and campus planning," and argues that her "years of experience in interdisciplinary work and teaching contribute to the firm’s unusual breadth and depth in architectural design." The fact that she is still as active in her field as ever is also important because she is connected with the same world as USC's students. In the same Interview article, which was about a retrospective of VSBA's work, she remarked that it felt strange for her to look back on her accomplishments because she and her husband were "not at the stage yet of 'looking for our footprints in time,' as they say of old people. We're still out there making those footprints." Education in three different countries has also required Scott Brown to assimilate conflicting ideas and cultural influences into her life and work, which is a skill USC strives to develop in its students.

Her firm’s method of working is based on teamwork and interdisciplinarity, which are becoming increasingly important in virtually every field and are thus of the utmost importance to new college graduates. The VSBA website explains that all of the senior architects work on every project together, and unlike the typical setup "in which a project is handed off to various departments at different stages of the design, our ‘one-team’ method promotes a consistent, knowledgeable, and dedicated project team." In describing their democratic approach to individual projects, the site points out the "wide variety of project types, ranging in scale from decorative arts to city planning", but the projects share a common thread: a "fresh approach to complex and contradictory problems." The firm always considers "the philosophy of their client, the traditions of the institution, the requirements of the program, and the characteristics of the site," which helps the designers to create innovative solutions for each client. These ideas are radically different from those which modern architects ascribed to, but they are all the more relevant now as design problems are becoming more obviously complex and contradictory than ever.

Among other qualities, USC looks for individuals with exemplary morals and character as recipients of honorary degrees. Looking at the way VSBA approaches its work, everything they do could be considered public service. The goal is always to serve the individual client but also the greater good; much of this stems from Scott Brown’s background in planning, and also from the interest in the aesthetic value of vernacular culture. Theirs is a remarkably egalitarian approach to design. Mike Martin believes that "ideals influence the style or manner in which individuals pursue their work. For example, architects have responsibilities to meet the needs of their clients and to avoid coercion and paternalistic violations of clients’ freedom. Nevertheless, architecture allows flexibility in how far professionals are allowed to assert their own aesthetic and even moral ideals" (20). VSBA strives to keep the clients interests, as well as those of the general public, at heart when working on any project, but their work always has a clear underlying vision as well. The testimonies of recent clients suggest that this method has served them well. Scott Brown's full resume is available on the VSBA site, but the organizations she has worked with include the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Society of Architectural Historians, among other institutions dedicated to preservation and development.

USC’s Central Role and Mission says the school has "played a major role in the development of Southern California for more than a century, and plays an increasingly important role in the development of the nation and the world." Association with Scott Brown, whose work with communities all over the country, would help the school toward its goal of influencing the outside world. She has been involved in looking for solutions to the architectural problems imposed by events like 9/11 and Katrina. In a Metropolis article called "What Shall We Do about the World Trade Center?" Scott Brown writes that "as an urban planner I am concerned with trends and patterns in the city, with understanding them, knowing their origins, and thinking about their future. As an architect I try to find ways to work within these trends and patterns--augmenting and possibly redirecting them to meet new needs and changed futures, relating new structures to existing patterns as they evolve." The goal of this is to create a better environment for everyone to live and work in without destroying what was originally there. While this may not seem like the best way to serve the communities affected by these disasters, it is actually one of the most important parts of the recovery process. The fact that Scott Brown serves others in a less obvious way does not mean her contribution is less significant or less worthy of recognition. As Freedman says, honorary degrees make a statement about the universities that grant them (132). Denise Scott Brown can help restore the level of USC’s honorands to what it should be while bringing some much-needed variety to the mix.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Architectural Web Design: The Monticello Explorer

Since architecture is a design discipline, it should reasonably be expected to represent itself in a well-designed environment on the web. Unfortunately, this type of resource seems scarce, or at least difficult to find. There are surprisingly few award-winning sites about buildings. A search of the recent winners and nominees for both the WebAwards and Webby Awards turns up hardly anything related to architecture, although real estate is a popular winner. Monticello Explorer, the interactive part of the Jefferson Foundation’s main website, is a remarkable exception. The extensive and successful use of Flash-based navigation is what sets this site apart. The main Monticello site describes it as "an in-depth, multimedia look at Monticello with 3-D models of the house, narrated tours, special animations, and an interactive map," which allow users to actively explore the content. The Explorer was built for the Jefferson Foundation by Second Story Interactive Studios. Their work is consistently sophisticated, and their projects are good examples of how interactivity can be utilized effectively on the web. Despite some minor flaws, the Monticello Explorer is an exceptionally well-designed and user-friendly website that can serve as a model for other sites and help architecture to establish a stronger presence online.

As in most fields, the majority of people involved in architecture and related professions use the internet in some capacity in connection to their work. It is not enough just to make information available; it must be made accessible as well, both in terms of the ability of internet users to locate sites and to digest their content, so the physical layout and navigation of the site are of utmost importance. Both the Webby and WebAwards are great resources for locating exceptional websites in particular fields, but the Webby Awards judging criteria are more specific and explain more clearly what they value in the sites thay recognize. One of these criteria is navigation, which it describes as the "framework of a site, the organization of content, the prioritization of information, and the method in which [users] move through the site," and all of this greatly influences how well content is communicated to readers. The Monticello Explorer has a very simple, smooth navigation system. The site is broken down into five main sections: Explore the Plantation, Explore the House, General House Tour, Domestic Life at Monticello, and Gardens and Grounds; each section works a little differently, but each is interactive and highly intuitive, making them both interesting and easy to use. The latter three are detailed, audio-guided video tours. During these tours, the user can select a room from a floor plan in the corner of the screen to see photographs and information about that specific room.

The plantation map allows the user to turn various elements on and off in order to focus on different aspects like buildings or roads in greater detail. The text box, which can be disabled to allow more space to view the map, gives the history of various parts of the grounds. For example, "The First, or Upper, Roundabout is the uppermost of the four level roads that encircled the mountain at different elevations. Jefferson's first records of the roundabouts are from November 1772 in his Garden and Farm Books." There are actually five different maps from different time periods to show the evolution of the land and structures over time. The house overview gives a brief description of the entire building and its eccentricities: "One of the most unique aspects of Jefferson's design for Monticello was his incorporation of the 'dependencies,' or essential service rooms, beneath raised, L­shaped terraces extending from either side of the house. The house's orientation in relation to the hillside enabled Jefferson to locate the dependencies next to the house without having them visible from the level of the primary entrances." The page for each room in the house has a text box that explains the use of the room and also gives dimensions, materials, and the historical precedents for the way it was designed.

One drawback to Flash environments like the Explorer is that every page has the same address, which means other sites can link to its homepage but not anywhere within the site. However, going through the process of finding information on the site is an important part of the experience. As the Web Style Guide says, unlike books, "Electronic documents provide none of the physical cues we take for granted in assessing information. When we see a Web hypertext link on the page we have few cues to where we will be led, how much information is at the other end of the link, and exactly how the linked information relates to the current page." On a site like this one, where the pages are not sequential and are not meant to be viewed in any particular order, it through the navigation that a user can get a sense of the space of the actual plantation and building. Another positive aspect of this site is its functionality. "Good functionality means the site works well," according to the Webby Awards judges. "It loads quickly, has live links, and any new technology used is functional and relevant for the intended audience." Everything loads exceptionally well, and even if the browser is slow the site compensates with interesting animations, such as the small elevation drawing of the main house that builds itself as a page loads. The transitions among and within pages are all very smooth, and movements are never choppy. Also, the site cooperates well with different browsers and adapts well to different computer screens.

The 3D model of the house itself functions very well. Navigation through the model is intuitive and fun, and the rendering is quite beautiful. However, there is still room for improvement. The model seems rather incomplete, especially since visitors to the actual house cannot see all of the rooms. As the Dome Room's page warns, "firecodes prevent visitors from touring the second and third floors of the house, including the Dome Room." It would make sense, then, for the online model to make virtual tours of these particular rooms available, but only two rooms on the third floor can be accessed on the site. It would also be helpful in many cases for the view finder to move vertically as well as horizontally.

Because most people who would visit architecture-related sites are presumably interested in design, they are likely to respond well to information presented in visually. As the Web Style Guide’s page on User-Centered Design indicates, since "users now expect a level of design sophistication from all graphic interfaces," web designers must be able to provide online environments that make sense and function well without being boring (which text-heavy pages often are). The Webby Awards look for visual design that "is high quality, appropriate, and relevant for the audience and the message it is supporting." For an audience accustomed to sophisticated aesthetic design in the built environment, a similar standard is reasonable for virtual environments. The Monticello Explorer is aesthetically appealing by any such standard. The color scheme and general appearance of the site is appropriate for an historical subject, but is not boring. Even the typefaces used suit the content well. These aspects which make the site seem 'old' are cleverly combined with the 'new' elements, especially the interactivity. The "Explore the House" section enables users to move through the rooms in the 3D model and view photographs of the furnished building to see what the actual house is like in relation to the model. The site is also searchable. The Webby Awards call for interactivity to be "more than a rollover or choosing what to click on next; it allows you, as a user, to give and receive. It insists that you participate, not spectate." The Monticello Explorer provides this type of environment to some extent, and its parent site allows for more direct channels of communication, which help to make up for anything lacking in the Explorer itself.

Of course, architects are not the only people interested in buildings. Like other historic landmarks, Monticello is a popular tourist attraction. Its website takes advantage of this by offering information for tourists and by making everything interesting and understandable for the average non-architect or –historian. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 73% of internet users go online to find travel information, 77% do so to research a hobby or interest, and 45% report using the internet to take virtual tours of locations. The Monticello Explorer is the type of site that would appeal to many of these internet users. Like the rest of the Monticello site, the explorer aims to be useful not only to professionals studying the building, but also to those with a casual interest, including children. The information is presented in such a way that it brings to life a subject which might otherwise seem boring or irrelevant. The whole site works together very cohesively, and it looks at history and architecture in a refreshing way, as vibrant fields that still have a lot to offer. Other websites could benefit from these methods of generating interest in a architectural subjects simply by presenting them in a straightforward and entertaining manner.


Monday, September 18, 2006

New York: On The Rebound

Since we have just passed the five year anniversary of September 11th, there has obviously been thorough coverage of New York this week, and looking through it I came across some interesting posts regarding the city’s architecture. The first, on Vik Rubenfeld’s blog “The Big Picture,” discusses the new Freedom Tower and rest of the new World Trade Center complex, which is being built near Ground Zero. Its design plan is available on the Lower Manhattan Development Project's site. This is the third in a series of posts (click here for the first or second post) he has written on the topic over the past year and a half, following the progress of the designs. My comment is #2. The second post, by Jen Chung on “The Gothamist,” is about large amounts of fuel stored at the Western Union Building; the landmark structure houses telecom equipment, and the fuel is used to run generators during blackouts. There is an article about it on "Downtown Express." The other comments on this post were particularly interesting to me. Most of the commenters are New York residents, and they seem to be evenly divided on whether the amount of fuel should be decreased. (Sorry I accidentally posted the comment twice.)

Monday, September 11, 2006

Bringing Back New Orleans: Economic Impacts of Rebuilding One Year Later

In September 1965, forty years before Katrina, Hurricane Betsy ravaged New Orleans to the point where the Army Corps of Engineers was inspired to form the Hurricane Protection Program, which built the levees that Katrina destroyed last year. The Wikipedia article on Betsy reports that it took “ten days or more before the water level in New Orleans went down enough for people to return to their homes. It took even longer than that to restore their flooded houses to a livable condition…In all, 164,000 homes were flooded at the second landfall.” Betsy’s damage was mostly limited to the upper and lower 9th Ward and parts of St. Bernard Parish; the French Quarter and the Garden District, which attract the most tourists and therefore drive the economy, were left unscathed. Katrina was not so kind. In addition to the ghastly death toll, Katrina caused over 80 billion dollars in damage, more than any storm in US history. Nearly every historical structure in the city was wiped out. The rebuilding process will be long and hard, but looking at the city’s tourism website, one would think New Orleans was back to normal already. Drawing tourists back to the city will be the key to a successful rebound, and this cannot happen unless the historic architecture is restored as completely as possible.

Tourism has long been the number one industry in New Orleans, so it follows that it is seen as the city’s ticket to economic recovery. A significant part of its allure has always been the unique architecture, and certainly it will be difficult to enjoy what the city has to offer without its traditional setting intact. Since most people would not want to spend their vacations in a disaster zone, there has been a massive effort to bring back tourist attractions and to finesse public perception, projecting an air of uninterrupted stability and substance. The tourism sites stress that the local cultural heritage can still be experienced, and that now is as good a time as ever to visit.

One of the first buildings on the restoration agenda was the Superdome. While work is not completely done at this point, the stadium’s website proclaims it “football-ready,” and it is still referred to as the “crown jewel of the New Orleans Skyline”. This sort of optimistic view is exactly what the tourism industry as a whole is going for. It remains to be seen whether the city’s restoration efforts will actually live up to the hype, but if it does then perhaps the economy will recover fairly soon. At this point, the industry is still losing money, but not nearly as quickly as it was a year ago, and it continues to provide tens of thousands of jobs for residents.

It seems that New Orleans is trying to move forward with new building projects at the same time as repairing old structures. It is at the beginning of “what could become a large downtown residential building boom, with multiple high-rise towers already planned for the city,” according to the Wikipedia article on the city. This will include a new 67 story Trump Tower,which will be the tallest building in Louisiana once completed, and it is expected to include twelve floors of parking as well as ground-level retail space. These new ventures should do a lot to revitalize New Orleans. It would be a mistake to let them take over completely, though; the city could very well end up razing important parts of its history that could still be preserved if it is too hasty to make room for new high-rises.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Revitalizing Detroit's Downtown: Little Changes Can Go a Long Way


Detroit and Windsor are both suffering from many of the same problems in their downtown areas. The decline in the automotive industry has affected Windsor significantly, if not so directly as it has Detroit. Both cities have started to lose their centers as residents sprawl out into extensive suburbs, not only because of crime but also because of the shift away from traditional downtown retail districts in favor of malls in outlying areas. Retail is no longer a part of downtown the way it used to be, and buildings which once made up the vibrant shopping districts have been deserted. Many of these remain vacant and are falling into disrepair. The site detroityes.com has documented many of these buildings in detail, finding beauty in their emptiness, though this beauty goes unnoticed by most. Windsor has somewhat successfully established itself as a nightlife destination, replacing the retail industry with entertainment. Detroit is attempting to follow suit in some ways, but it has focused on large projects which do not bring visitors into the city regularly enough. While Windsor still leaves much room for improvement, it is doing better than Detroit because it has worked on a smaller scale, bringing in new businesses rather than new stadiums. Although Detroit’s large scale preservation and restoration efforts have brought some positive attention to the city, rehabilitation of and new uses for the city’s lesser known vacant buildings could contribute more to revitalizing Detroit’s downtown.

Detroit has put too much emphasis on new building projects, like Ford Field and Comerica Park, and on drawing major events like Super Bowl XL and, potentially, the 2020 Olympics. Such events might bring in some money right when they happen, but the fact that they do not occur regularly makes this less beneficial to the city’s fragile economy. The new stadiums have helped draw attention to the city, and attendance is great, but the old stadiums have a connection to the history of the city that the new structures do not have. The original structures could have been restored. Now, they may possibly be demolished to make room for housing, even though there are plenty of other vacant buildings that could be razed instead. The discussion board on detroityes.com addresses many such locations which are not being used for anything, and it seems that the Detroiters who use the site are full of ideas for what to do with the land, though most probably do not make their suggestions directly to the city. Old stadiums have been converted directly into housing in other places – why not do that with Tiger Stadium? The field itself could be made into a park, or new buildings could be constructed in the interior space. It could house museums, too.

Detroit also needs to stop relying on the auto companies the way it does. Annual events like the North American International Auto Show and the classic cruises are still popular, but even this does not boost sales of American cars. The city needs to accept the fact that new industries must be brought in alongside the car companies for the economy to recover. The need for economic diversification is clear. Could the old retail buildings perhaps be restored and converted for new uses? According to the city’s planning website, the government is already attempting to bring more small businesses and branches of national chains into downtown, and hopefully money will start flowing back into the city with them. The trick will be to convince potential customers that these downtown businesses have something more to offer than what can be found in the suburbs. This is where the vacant old buildings come into play. Most of them were once very beautiful, and much of that beauty can be brought back with a little refurbishment. Americans like the idea of “historical” buildings because the country is so young; the built environment in the US is not dominated by ancient structures the way much of Europe is. Historicity is a novelty in America, and it can be put to work to help revitalize local economies. One place where the city seems to be working to restore itself on the neighborhood level is on the Far East side. The planning site claims that the area will be made over residentially and commercially. Exactly what will be changed remains to be seen, but perhaps if this neighborhood is successfully revived it can serve as a model for other parts of the city. If downtown Detroit could restore more of its old architecture for use by new businesses and housing developments, it could infuse them with a feeling of cultural significance that would make them more attractive, so downtown could once again seem relevant to people from the suburbs.