Monday, March 12, 2007

Rogers: Cities First, Then Buildings

Architecture students are usually taught that the internal demands of a project come first, and what happens outside on the street - happens as an afterthought. So what a nice surprise to hear an architect of the stature of Richard Rogers tell a convention of university architecture professors in Philadelphia that their students should think less about individual designs and more about making cities livable.

Rogers, who turned the profession inside-out with buildings like the Pompidou Centre in Paris and Lloyds of London, was interested in urbanism and environmental sustainability long before they become the mainstream issues they are today. He did his first master plan for London in 1986 and today serves as an adviser on design and planning to Mayor Ken Livingstone. He's come to believe that the fate of cities and the planet are inextricably linked, a subject he explored in "Cities for A Small Planet." Unless the world moves quickly to rein in sprawl and reduce carbon consumption, the earth is headed for rocky environmental times, warned Rogers, who was in Philadelphia on Saturday to address the Association of Collegiate Architecture Schools. "We're at the tipping point," he said.

What's the environment got to do with educating architects? A lot. As many others have noted, construction of new buildings is a major contributor to the problem of climate change. (Rogers blamed it for the 75 percent of carbon emissions, though that sounds a bit high.) Rogers argues that architects now have a moral obligation to lobby their clients to include sustainable elements in their projects And the only way to make truly sustainable buildings - as opposed to the kind that simply incorporates some earthy-crunchy finishes - is to build in existing urban areas at relatively high densities.

A lot of the ground Rogers covered on Saturday has been well trod by the anti-sprawl crowd: Stop developing cornfields and build in existing urban areas. Don't be afraid of density. Keep cities economically diverse by supporting affordable housing. Make urban places livable by including public amenities in new project. But when these ideas come from the mouth of an internationally respected designer like Rogers, the architecture community is more likely to take notice. It doesn't hurt that Rogers has that British, lets-pull-together-mates manner of speaking, and that he is known for being married to one of the top chefs in Britain, Ruth Rogers, of the River Cafe. So rather than coming off like a stern nanny urging you to take your medicine, he makes the project of urban regeneration sound like great fun, something to be accompanied by leisurely meals with friends.

Actually, one of the most charming and compelling parts of Rogers' talk was his vision of cities as sociable places "first and foremost for the meeting of friends and strangers." His emphasis on environmental sustainability can't be separated from good urbanism. Rogers believes cities have to be comfortable places to live, with plenty of parks and narrow, walkable streets, and regular supplies of good coffee. Some other interesting comments:

-Density has nothing to do with height. Barcelona, which caps its buildings at eight stories, is the densest city in Europe.
-Jane Jacobs' "eyes on the street" is better than any security camera in deterring crime.
-While 60 percent of Los Angeles' land area is devoted to asphalt roads, only 15 percent of New York's ground is covered by streets.
-The U.S. consumes three-times as much carbon fuel per capita as Europe.

It wasn't clear whether the audience of architecture professors was buying everything Rogers had to say. But toward the end, the dean from the University of Michigan's architecture school asked Rogers if it were really possible to maintain the"look of the traditional urban street and still have great modern architecture." Rogers replied amicably, "you don't always need a street, but you have to a mix."

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This guy Rogers must be some type of genius. I agree a much denser Center City of 200,000 to 250,000 people would support many more retail and restaurant businesses. Maybe they will clear all of the old warehouses between Broad and Spring Garden and 10th street. Imagine 5 and 6 story Hoboken style lofts with retail on the ground in this desert like area.

9:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This guy Rogers must be some type of genius. I agree a much denser Center City of 200,000 to 250,000 people would support many more retail and restaurant businesses. Maybe they will clear all of the old warehouses between Broad and Spring Garden and 10th street. Imagine 5 and 6 story Hoboken style lofts with retail on the ground in this desert like area.

10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This guy Rogers must be some type of genius. I agree a much denser Center City of 200,000 to 250,000 people would support many more retail and restaurant businesses. Maybe they will clear all of the old warehouses between Broad and Spring Garden and 10th street. Imagine 5 and 6 story Hoboken style lofts with retail on the ground in this desert like area.

10:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This guy Rogers must be some type of genius. I agree a much denser Center City of 200,000 to 250,000 people would support many more retail and restaurant businesses. Maybe they will clear all of the old warehouses between Broad and Spring Garden and 10th street. Imagine 5 and 6 story Hoboken style lofts with retail on the ground in this desert like area.

10:02 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

Rogers is certainly on the right track here. And his values—density, sustainability, etc.—apply not just to Center City, but to the neighborhoods. There are deserts like the old warehouses cited by anonymous in many parts of Philadelphia.

Philadelphia isn't the only city with this problem. The figures that Rogers cites show (to me at least) that Los Angeles is basically an urban desert with a few houses scattered around. I was struck by how little of New York is devoted to asphalt paving—and how much more vibrant New York's street life is than LA's. Does LA even have street life?

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A bureaucrat lecturing academics, I can scarcely imagine the electricity in the air.

1:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What’s appalling is that Inga has no architecture education but likes to discuss how traditionally architects are taught. The reality is that he was preaching to the choir. Every architect knows and understands what was said and has been pushing these ideas for quite a while. 95% of the American homes built are done by developers, not architects. At almost 2 million homes built a year, it’s an ungodly amount of marginal housing consuming the landscape.

What was “important” is that architects need to take a stand and not accept jobs unless basic sustainable principles are met. But, like any business, the weak will crumble and the guys you want designing the buildings will not get the work and eventually go out of business. So what should be done? We need to write simple, sound sustainable principles into the building and energy codes. They are outdated and cater to status quo construction methodologies. Also, the expectations of the everyday man/woman need to change. It’s happening slowly but when it’s your turn to build or renovate something and the estimate comes in higher for sustainable materials/design, you have to understand its importance and put it into perspective. What you leave on this earth is something we all need to consider. Most people spend all kinds of money on useless stuff and then balk at spending a few hundred bucks more on a Tankless Water Heater as opposed to a standard 40 gallon Hot Water Heater.

3:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Required building setbacks and parking garages have destroyed what I was taught as "context" when I studied architecture 30 years ago. In my opinion, architecture should should be judged as to how it responds to and respects the neighboring buildings. I sick of buildings responding only to economics and ego.

5:23 PM  
Anonymous Sandy Sorlien said...

The final quote from Rogers is odd. Is that what he really said, "You don't always need a street?"

Sandy

8:00 AM  

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