My hunch confirmed

My body has returned to from London, but part of my mind seems to be stuck there, so I'll be posting about London for a few more times. I'm milking my jet lag excuse for a little while longer though--one day per hour recovery--so my dispensation lasts until tomorrow. So this will be a really short post, but I just have to share.

I argue regularly about whether 'tis cheaper to live "out" of the city and own a car or live "in" and give it up. The folks I argue with continue to insist that they can't afford to live in the city and that I'm speaking from some particiularly privleged position. The privlege lies soley in being paid to be opinionated, a real treat for those of us who would do it for free, but that hardly puts me in rarified economic company.

So I was thrilled to see that the
American Public Transportation Assocation released a report this week itemizing how much one can save by "dumping the pump" and switching to public transportation. Turns out the average is $9068 per year. That smells like real money to me. There's a helpful table showing how we in Washington rank compared to other America cities. We are, with apologies to Garrison Keillor, predictably above average at $9223 per year. For those who are math-challenged, the chart gives monthly savings so you see what kind of rent or mortgage you could be paying instead of pouring it down the gas tank and belching it out the tailpipe for pedestrians to inhale: $769. Just thought you might want to know. I'll shut up now.

For more information on National Dump the Pump Day, visit www.publictransportation.org.


The city personified

So much of what we think of a place comes from what we think of its people. What we think of the people comes from the myriad random encounters we have on the sidewalk, at the bus stop, in restaurants, on the tube, at the pub. Some of those encounters—getting a train ticket, ordering a pint—are necessary transactions which can either end right there or become bits of ornamentation on the fabric of the city. Last summer the British press was following the US presidential primaries closely and almost every encounter included some unsolicited comment. I remember getting a transit pass from a man, hair wound up tight in a turban in the Sikh manner, who asked if I was an American. He smiled broadly and said as if in one word, “howaboutthatObama!” He then checked himself: “Is it okay I say that?” Yeah, it’s okay. That’s why we travel.

I met a group of artists last year at a pub in Chelsea where they had just taken down an exhibition of their work. As often happens the picnic tables outside the pub were full so my husband and I welcomed them to share our table. We kept in touch over the last year via the miracle of email and so this summer I took a gang of eager and curious students to the Guerrilla Gallery on Brick Lane to an opening of their work. This year’s encounters included an American ex-pat on the canal boat, whom we ran into later that evening, implausibly, at a pub across town; Pirate Girl in the queue for the loo (note mastery of local language) who kept talking about my hair; and Officer Jenner who responded to our witnessing--again, implausibly—a young man climb up a downspout to break into a 4th floor apartment. He turned—implausibly, again, implausibility being a trend by now—when my husband called out to him and he snapped his picture. “Brilliant!” said Officer Jenner, “what…is he Spiderman?” She showed her partner who said, as if on cue “what…is he Spiderman?”

The city becomes literally personified. One student loved Paris because her interactions with strangers were warm and hospitable. Another had the exact opposite experience in the same city, the same weekend. Were they in fact in the same Paris? One student finds Londoners rude, and therefore London rude, because she’s been bumped and jostled on the street without the expected pardons and excuse me’s. The contrast between London and Blacksburg, which most of these students call home-for-now, is too jarring for some. But we’re all like that, living at the very center of a pre-Copernican universe, where everything revolves around us. I am the center. Every I construct a perfectly plausible, internally consistent model of that universe. Travel to a city like London displaces us, pushes us to see our own orbit and the full scale of the system which depends on productive collisions to spark new live forms. That’s why we travel.

Here in London are piled up millennia of I-universes, some invisible but audible, inaudible but sensible, insensible but visible. Each of us constructs our own city dragging the thread of our experience behind us like Theseus and tying knots at certain places. I’m still working on my London. Even as I prepare to leave, patching a few holes and whip-stitching places together, I’m wondering if my Washington needs some mending, if I’ve begun to take it for granted. I have to remember to keep the needle threaded as the after image of initial strangeness begins to fade at home. That’s why we travel.


random transit thoughts

"I have always thought that the substitution of the internal combustion engine for the horse marked a very gloomy milestone in the progress of mankind."

Winston Churchill, 1954

The horse might have disagreed with the esteemed Mr. Churchill, but it's an interesting observation anyway. I spent 3 1/2 hours in the London Transport Museum at Covent Gardens proving my bonafides as a transit geek and it was worth every pence. The museum chronicles the growth and development of London through its transportation and the exhibitions are full of "gee, who knew?" moments, such as:

Ever notice how most contemporary transit maps have a similar graphic language? That great map of Washington's Metro system among others owes its clarity to Harry Beck,who worked as a draughtsman (note the contextual construed British spelling)at what became London Transport. He proposed the diagrammatic map in 1931 and it was first printed and used in 1933. His brilliance lay in abandoning a literal map of the system and substituting instead a wiring-like diagram that emphasized topological relations among stations. Thanks Harry!

London Transport also had a progressive and visionary CEO during that time in Frank Pick. He commissioned not only Beck's diagram but also series of wonderful posters promoting ridership and the famous logo. Thanks, Frank!

I'm fascinated by the double-decker buses and have wondered not only why no other city deploys them but how London came to have two-storey transit in the first place. Apparently, London has been double decking for a long time. The museum shows double-decker horse drawn omnibuses, of all things, with well dressed folks perched in the open air on top.

What was so inspiring about the museum was that the final exhibit was about not the past but the future. There was a bit too much blatant sponsor-driven content masquerading as content, but the series of 4 possible future time lines was thought-provoking. None was overly optimistic regarding resource depletion and climate change but it was a great way to end the exhibition: asking the visitor to contemplate what kind of future they wanted and the variables that might lead there.


Playing in the Commons

It’s been 3 weeks now that we’ve been in London, long enough to feel fatigue, to take a break from the intensity of all we are trying to do and see in 4 weeks. To help my digestion I’ve been looking back at my notes in my sketchbook to jog my memory. Outlined at the bottom of a page with two lists—“what we in the US should take from London; what we should leave to them—is a quote from one of the many plays we’ve seen: “you…are always playing with the lives of strangers.” The full scribble—it was dark in theater—that I wrote was:

‘“you…are always playing with the lives of strangers.” The others? The next generation?’

That was from Wole Soyinka’s (http://www.enotes.com/authors/wole-soyinka) drama Death and King’s Horseman. The line was hurled at the British colonial administrator in Nigeria as he clumsily intervened in a tribal ritual bringing his own cultural values to bear on a situation he didn’t understand. It was an indictment of the individual, but by extension also of the west. There’s far more to the story and to the complexity of the situation, but nonetheless it is that line I wrote down in my sketchbook because I heard in it an indictment of capricious architecture and scorched-earth planning. Take a look at the electronic clipping service, ArchNewsNow and you’ll see a growing chorus of criticism of the flashy and the self-indulgent “signature” project. This upwelling may be recession induced to be sure, but it’s been a long time coming.

What is it exactly, to play with the lives of others? We in the design profession spend our lives in the lives of others, invited by the few—the client-- but affecting the many. There’s really no such thing as a “private” project. The tiniest house on the most remote site takes from the commons material, energy, capital, and human effort to design, construct, and inhabit. Maybe that’s the wrong way to think of it; maybe “takes” should be “borrows”, or “barters.” I hear you: owners have paid for those things, haven’t they? Wages, fees, material costs…a client who builds a house has surely paid for it. Well, the bank has paid for it, and we all know where that binge ends up. But those aren’t the costs I’m really thinking about.

As a forest is a carbon sink, locking up the stuff in a productive way, buildings and cities are human energy sinks, immense reservoirs of energy and resources to be sure, but also of imagination, devotion and desire drawn from and returned to the commons. The degree to which the architecture is offered to the commons as a gift or a slap determines the character of the city. London is full of absolutely delightful places and buildings offered to its citizens for their civic enjoyment. But it, like every city, also contains mean spaces that begrudge habitation. Playing in the commons makes a delightful city; playing with the commons, a selfish one.

Play, as Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori knew, is serious business and a way of learning and knowing the world. But there is a distinction between playing with things and playing with lives. Design as an activity is a kind of play, in the Piagetian sense, but neither architecture nor planning enacted is play, although the results can be playful. Architects and planners have the lives of strangers, living and not yet born, in our hands.


Greener on the Other Side?

It’s always greener on the other side. Or at least that’s how it seems. We in the U.S. are such laggards in sustainability, we moan. Why can’t we be more like the Germans or the Swiss and build elegant high performance buildings? Why can’t we build humane cities like the Danes? Why can’t we be more environmentally and urbanistically progressive, like the English?

Up close things are a lot more complex. The London bus system is indeed remarkable; it’s comfortable, fast and even fun. The buses I’ve been using regularly (205, 9, 38, 43) come as often as Metro trains in Washington and if it’s a double-decker, rather than a bendy, I run up the stairs—yeah, stairs, on a moving vehicle—to the front row for the big view of the city’s second floors. The Tube is like New York City’s, a patchwork of once competing private lines now cobbled together by a drunken bricoleur into a “system” of such complexity that it probably has a minotaur in the center.

Both modes plus an increasing legion of cyclists on folding bikes really do offer true mobility free of the automobile. Central London, however, is still not as pedestrian-friendly as it should be. Sidewalks can be narrow, and too many intersections funnel walkers through cattle chute-like fences to get them from median to median. Even with all of those choices and the congestion pricing, London traffic is still, well…still. Standing still. Dead stop still. At times it’s faster to get out and walk. It seems that the congestion fee has become simply a cost of doing business for those who do business, not too mention the fittest members of the urban ecosystem, the taxis.

Recession or not, the skyline bristles with cranes…and yes, they are moving. Piano, Rogers, Foster et alia tout their projects’ green features in panenvironmental friezes along construction fences. An architect visiting London can get whiplash looking at one double skin, exo-shaded, green roofed building after another. But will they all live up to the hype? Does anything ever live up to its hype? Foster’s jewel-like City Hall displays its green grade report in the lobby, issued every June. Sadly, it’s just below average for 2009. Somewhere between design and inhabitation the building has slipped. Is the flaw in the design? The construction? Or in the user? Perhaps the fault, dear Norman, lies not in our star-chitects, but in our selves…

Ourselves. For all the leadership shown by the local governments, the design professions and the client class, the average Londoner seems no more attuned to the environment than the average American…maybe less. The dark surprise of London is the litter. The detritus of prosperity and consumption—plastic bags, junk food wrappers, carryout containers, ubiquitous beer cans and bottles—is everywhere not directly under the royal broom. The canals, once industrial now being reclaimed into green and blue ribbons of calm are clogged with trash. Narrow boats share the locks with flotsam and ducks swim through bobbing bottles. Some do not fare well. Near Camden Lock we saw a duck struggle to free himself from a plastic 6-pack ring. First flapping his wings violently and then dropping his green iridescent head into the water in exhaustion, over and over again, he was out of reach of help.

Farther up Camden Canal the towpath was crammed with teens and 20’s eating, drinking, and smoking. In post-punk black and spikes, these faux-anarchists were merrily consuming and mindlessly trashing their environment. In the U.S., this is the generation who cares; who gather to clean up rivers, not trash them. It’s risky to make generalizations on such anecdotal evidence, but the contrast between the loud and proud green Britain and the loud and loutish behavior of some of its citizens takes a bit of the shine off the halo.