Tag Archives: urban design

A New Museum on the Mall?

This week’s Sunday column takes up the question of where a new museum, devoted to Latino Americans, should go. On the Mall? At the base of the United States Capitol? Or somewhere better situated to drive larger urban design goals for the city of Washington? I prefer the last of these options.


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Filed under Architecture, Culture, Museums, urban design

Open those windows

As gripes go, I admit it is a small one. But it’s sad to see windows appear in new buildings only to be covered over from the inside when a retailer with a basic corporate template for the floor plan moves in. You see this all over Washington, and in other cities too. I walk by these spaces and am always struck by the lost opportunity. You’re happy that there’s retail in the downtown, but then that same retail leaves whole blocks of dead windows facing the street. As an architect I interviewed for today’s Sunday column in the Post points out, there are solutions to this problem. But it takes a little pressure and guidance to get past the inertia.

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Filed under Architecture, Culture, Uncategorized, urban design

The Sunday Column

There are unexamined pieties to Washington urban design thinking that continue to hold the city back. Last Sunday, I used my Washington Post column to examine one of the most sacred of these: The fetish for the 1901 McMillan plan, which assumes the National Mall is sacred space and must remain inviolate for ever and ever. Today, I take on the arguments of some historic preservationists who want to hold the District to the letter of an 1889 law that forbids overhead streetcar wires. What’s so ugly about streetcar wires? Done right, they can become an important advertisement for the city’s progressive move toward better and more environmentally friendly mass transit. And by the way: If you believe Washington is a city filled with spectacular vistas down wide open streets, try standing in the middle of East Capitol Street and look to the Capitol. What do you see? Trees. Beautiful trees. That’s what we need to focus on preserving.


Filed under Culture, Preservation, urban design

They must love migraines

News flash: The Chicago and Shanghai offices of the architecture giant Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, have been chosen to design a major expansion of the business district in Beijing. And it comes with all the  environmental trimmings. Plans call for pedestrian and bicycle friendly streets, a street car system to link the nodal points of the expanded district, and buildings that are  “high performance,” meaning they will be more earth friendly in their design and systems. All good news. Except now SOM has to actually make all of this happen, which as anyone who watched the experience of landscape design firm Sasaki at the Olympic site can attest, isn’t going to be easy.

The original plan for the Olympic park was better than this — more organic, more green, more diverse in its breakdown of space. But the Chinese have a strange way of soliciting plans and then messing them up. The Boston-based urban planning firm Sasaki Partners did much of the overall design concept for the Olympic Green. But the company is at pains to let the world know that “Sasaki had no involvement in the design and final implementation of the landscape for the Beijing Olympics,” according to its Web site.

Good luck, SOM.

Image courtesy of SOM.




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Filed under Architecture

Put Locke to Work

I received a brief email from a reader who took issue (I think) with my review of the Academy Award nominated “The Garden,” appearing in today’s “Post.” I framed this documentary, about the contest over a 14-acre community garden in South Central Los Angeles, in terms of John Locke’s theory of property.

“Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature has provided and left it in, he has mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature has placed it in, it has by this labor something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men.”

Mix your labor with the earth, and that patch of earth is yours. It’s an enticing theory, especially if you live in a country such as the U. S. which retains a vigorous cultural memory of the frontier. Yes, of course the frontier wasn’t empty, and there were plenty of native people mixing labor with it before the Europeans arrived with their more heavy-handed mixing. But that doesn’t mean that the idea of owning something simply through its improvement and its upkeep doesn’t have powerful resonance. And it’s that power that makes the gardeners in “The Garden,” mostly poor Hispanic residents, sympathetic figures despite the deeply complex question of who actually owns the land they’re tilling.

My email interlocutor asked what seemed at first like a non sequitur: What do you have to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? In general, I find it best not to introduce flash-point issues such as Middle East conflict into reviews of community gardening movies. But the writer has a point. And it’s an all the more salient point given that I reviewed “Lemon Tree”—a drama based on a real life story about a Palestinian woman who loses her family’s lemon grove when the Israeli minister of defense moves in next door–a week earlier. If I was going to bring up Locke, perhaps that was the time.

Locke’s theory of property was probably never meant to leave the rarefied confines of the State of the Nature, that all-purpose intellectual breeding ground located somewhere between the North Pole and the Land of the Purple Ponies. But it remains an emotional idea, a feeling about ownership and rights more than an argument. It is curious how powerful the feeling is, especially given what I wrote about Peter Brown’s lecture a few days ago. Paradise is pre-work, pre-tilling, pre-mixing your labor with the land. Locke’s ideal shows how far we’ve come since the Loss of Eden. Both movies dip into paradise imagery: the Lemon Grove and the South Central Garden are clearly meant to be Edenic patches in a hostile, ugly world. But their ownership, their connection to the people who have made them into a little bit of paradise, is all through that very post-lapsarian idea of work.

That said, I’m still not likely to gratuitously raise the Israel-Palestine conflict in any movie review that isn’t explicitly about the Israel-Palestine conflict. There’s no margin in it.

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Filed under Culture, Feuilleton, film