enhancing solar urbanism: two postcards

In the recent essay, “Reading the Evolution of Places“, Ana Maria Manzo and I argued for a collaborative, multicultural and multidimensional awareness of place as we move forward with urban reinvention.

Noting the universal interaction of human settlement with light, we asked “How to live amid the sunset?”.

Here are two postcards of Seattle on August 24, which embellish the magic of city and sun. How can we best design and regulate to enhance this blending of natural and built environments?

reading the evolution of places

This article is a collaboration of two people who have never met, one, an architect in Venezuela, Ana Maria Manzo (reachable via her blog, the place of dreams), and the other, an environmental and land use lawyer in the United States, Chuck Wolfe, founder of myurbanist.

Below, they provide intercontinental guidance for reading urban evolution.

The evolution of place is far from a linear process. Rather, it is an interactive story which features the blending of many dimensions.

Time, of course, creates new and old approaches to the look and feel of habitation, workplace, and the transportation routes between. The elements of water and land interface and interact, sometimes together, with the built environment. Climate drives seasons and forms of building, access and the manipulation of light. And cultural approaches to ownership and stewardship modify these responses to climate, and create alternative forms of building on the ground.

Today, we are driven by a new sustainability ethic, necessarily systemic in scope. Carbon-neutrality is the rage, and location efficiency, clean energy and the return of neighborhood are the watchwords of change. Formulas and metrics, and new regulatory systems attempt results, and show the quest to measure how close we are to achieving ideal forms of location and development.

But as both of us have written in different languages, context is key, and adaptation to a multi-environmental sense of place, associated imagery and sensation is an essential element of building design, urban development and innovation going forward.  Creating beautiful buildings that are able to work for the environment, or crafting appropriate enabling regulations, should also be considered as part of a broader, holistic effort. There is no use in having architects, urban planners, developers and lawyers thinking in isolation about a better future.

This should be a movement of us all; a movement that evokes positive emotions in those who inhabit cities, and a movement which makes us dream.

What forces shape the look and feel of place? Above, the context of a water-oriented urban skyline in modern America (Seattle) compares with today’s view of biblical legend, adjacent to the “Valley of Death” (Silwan, East Jerusalem). Note the stark contrast created by available building space, history and the local ecology of water.

How to live amid the sunset? The interaction of urban space and the same sun shows historical variance in the United States and Montenegro.

How to accommodate population density? Through the advantages of a planned city as in the future Masdar in Abu Dhabi, or through the improvised Barrios of Caracas, Venezuela?

What are the bases of cultural inspiration and sense of place? A false town (Universal Studios) and a real town (Port Townsend, Washington) show how life can imitate art.

What is the relationship between natural resources and urban settlement at the shoreline? Here, in but one example, water, hills and towns blend together in form and function in Northern Italy and the Cyclades Islands of Greece.

How do people choose to “occupy” their familiar public spaces? Here, two young people enjoy public space in a plaza in Mexico, in contrast to a group of Venezuelan students, who, in political protest, spell with their bodies the word “freedom” in the midst of a major thoroughfare.

What is the contrasting look and feel of public street space based on cultural expression, local economies and changing transportation modes? Here, ironically, we see vitality amid economic duress in the Middle East, and economic challenges of removal of parking and loading for bike lanes in the new, multi-modal America.

What additional interfaces exist between commercial settings and public spaces around the world? Here, witness the role of music and dining against the backdrop of a grand, public square, and an eatery amid public streetside darkness.

How is space between new and old buildings used in different places? Here, we see access to a rear residence, compared with two modern towers flanking an older building which has fallen into non-use.

What becomes of mixed use development in areas with with different histories? Here, adjacent to Piazza Navona, we see the commercial path between emblematic public spaces in Rome, as compared to the current use of a street in Valletta, Malta, once reserved specifically for duels between storied knights.

In different contexts, how can bodies of water be used in urban areas? Here, American recreation contrasts with gondolas, now also arguably recreation in today’s Venice.

In conclusion, we reference more than history–we emphasize the need to access multidimensional memories of place to honor positive evolution in the design of new and redeveloped urban spaces. Hence, we must never forget the value of comparison, and of awareness and wisdom about the context of distant and romantic worlds which we often hope to mirror, or regain.

While every culture may provide different, contextual approaches, collectively these approaches should attempt a common goal: human life in a better urban landscape. All elements must be considered: sense of place, climate, sound, population density, geographic orientation and, of course, neighbor buildings.

When we are collectively able to consider all of these elements to envision the re-creation of urban settings, the evolution of place will take a new and positive direction.

(Initially co-published at the place of dreams and el lugar de los sueños. Republished in slightly different form in seattlepi.com and appeared in planetizen on August 23. Please scroll over photos for credits).

myurbanist international–guest blog: shutters and flying monkeys

Through the blogosphere, I’ve had the pleasure of trading observations about the role and function of shutters with David Mathias, a well-known author on woodworking topics who now lives in Switzerland. David was kind enough to republish the myurbanist article, “shutters, placemaking and urbanism” today on his great blog, Poems of Wood & Light.

In return, here’s David’s August 18 take on shutters, “Shutters and Flying Monkeys”, indented below. David’s thoughts have currency here, as he continues to ponder evolution from the American suburb of his youth and researches the colorful role, history and function of shutters in Switzerland! Photo credits, of course, to David Mathias at Poems of Wood & Light.

I spent my childhood, as did many of you, in suburban tract houses. Built in the 1960s, these were typical American homes of the time. Well-built, unpretentious symbols of the American Dream. The second of these houses, which my parents purchased when I was 15, is a wonderful split level with 3 bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, and a two-car garage. There is no marble in the bathrooms nor granite in the kitchen. The stairs are not 48″ wide. It was a simple, warm and inviting home for our family. My parents lived there for 29 years before heading south for warmer weather some years after retiring.

The two houses in which I spent nearly my entire childhood share a feature that caused me some confusion as a child. I believe that the first time I saw shutters that actually closed was in The Wizard of Oz (not one of my favorite movies — to this day, I hate those damn flying monkeys). The house we lived in from the time I was six had shutters. They were black and rigidly attached to the house. No hinges, no latches, no attempt at functionality. Until I saw The Wizard of Oz (I hate those monkeys), I thought nothing of it, I had no idea that there was a function for them.

As I lay there in my childhood bed, too afraid of airborne primates to sleep, at least I had something to ponder: Why did our house have immovable shutters? What was the point? Shutters, I had learned, were supposed to be closed during severe weather and subsequently smack young girls in the head allowing for development of acid-induced flights of writerly fancy and shows of Technicolor glory. Our shutters did none of those things.

I was too young to understand that modern storm windows had rendered shutters largely unnecessary. Of course, they couldn’t simply disappear. People were accustomed to seeing them; functional or not, they were essential. At some point in time, I figured that out and I assumed that functional exterior shutters were throwbacks to another time, present only on old houses (houses potentially filled with flying monkeys).

By the time my wife and I bought our first house there was no pretense of purely decorative shutters. Nor were there storm windows which had been supplanted by sealed, multi-pane units, but that’s a different topic. Shutters were officially dead. Mystery solved. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Then we moved to Switzerland. In this country, shutters are everywhere. They are on old buildings. They are on new buildings. I’m not sure that I’ve seen a building here without shutters. And they are all functional. Every last one of them. Hinges. Latches. The works. Which suggests a question: Who cares? I do and here’s why. They are fantastic. Perhaps the appeal is related to the childhood confusion or maybe it is purely aesthetic. Either way, I can’t get enough of them.

Buildings here tend to be more colorful than what I’m used to in the US. Shutters provide one source for colorful displays. In some cases, patterns, sometimes similar to sunbursts, are painted on. These appear to correspond with region though I still have much to learn about that tradition. Shutters can also convey a great deal of character. I have a particular affinity for the old, weather-beaten examples, colors faded by the sun and years of service. I find a certain dignity in them and am reminded that in some parts of the world, old things are not discarded simply because of their age.

Even old shutters are not mere artifacts. More than simply functional, they are both useful and used. With the exception of large public buildings, nothing in Switzerland is air conditioned. With air conditioning largely unnecessary due to the mild climate, we have rediscovered fresh air. At night, we often sleep with windows open. During the day, one can open windows to let in fresh air and close the shutters, at least partially, to keep out the sun. And flying monkeys. Those things are just creepy.