The Urban Consciousness Index

Stories About Buildings

SESSION 1: Urban Consciousness

Good evening and welcome to Stardust. This Thursday night, and for the next 3 Thursday nights, the next hour will be stories about buildings. The second part of each evening, Poolside Studios will provide you, for the first time anywhere, The Urban Consciousness Index, a report on the state of our urban form.

This session is dedicated to John, who demystified the exotic for me, and once this pathway was made clear, it has been thrilling to continue on beyond. A few words about John: a tall, athletic Britisher with light blond hair, looking totally at home in Bangkok, Thailand, he has retained his British accent while acquiring some street Thai which he speaks fairly easily. He arrived in Thailand in the 1960’s with a degree in interior design, and together with his wife, Li, created Abacus Design. John and Li’s design studio is an extension of their marvelous house in the suburbs of Bangkok. Their house staff and their design professional staff also have sleeping quarters at their house, and they all tend to have meals together, so Abacus functions as a true atelier, in the classical sense. John and Li design residences for Thai princes, hotels, shops, and galleries, and whatever comes along that interests them. Their creativity has resulted in his work being recognized regionally in Asia as well as the west as a blend of western modernism and eastern use of materials.

Their house sits on a property in the densely packed suburbs of Sukhumvit 81, in the northwest region of the eastern side of the river that flows through Bangkok. They designed and built it in the 1980’s. You enter by coming to a large, stainless steel gate, and shout as loud as possible to the houseman who has a small office at the gate. He opens it by hand and you are in a stone courtyard, the parking area for their white, three-story stucco house.

Directly ahead of you is another gate, leading to an inner courtyard. To the left, a large spirit house is decorated with incense, flowers, and food offerings for the land spirits – more about this in a minute. Crossing the second wrought iron gate, you are at a covered walkway surrounding a beautiful water garden, with fragrant flowers and a small natural pond. In the middle of the pond, a small teak pavilion sits.

The first floor is a huge living room full of some of the most exotic antiques from southeast Asia that one has ever seen. Patina copper rain drums from Vietnam, carved Burmese armoires, decades old; a beautiful, weatherbeaten Laotian oxcart, but the most fascinating of all pieces are the carved wood beams, columns, and rafters from Thai temples. The oldest are decorated with small pieces of glass, faded painted geometric patterns, and they all still exude a certain spiritual strength, even though they are deconstructed.

When John explained the reason he has them, there is a poignancy to this that caused me a great deal of contemplation and it led to a whole body of work of art. The village culture of Southeast Asia is rooted in the rain forests from Vietnam to Laos to Burma. The villages are usually made of wooden houses, temples, and storage buildings. Most of the houses are kits, John said, and the people are used to disassembling them and moving them in times of flooding, drought, or war.

The rain forests, however, are being sold off to lumber companies, cut down, and the villages are running out of places to move. Coupled with that, the village mentality of Southeast Asia is quickly giving in to the city, as people leave for jobs to make microchips or blue jeans.

So, John said, on his shopping trips to northern Thailand, Burma, and Laos, he is led to villages where the houses and temples are abandoned. The village chief is glad to sell off the unused buildings – otherwise they are used for firewood! Since teak is a hard material, difficult to carve, these houses are sometimes 200 years old or more, and John buys them and trucks them back to Abacus.

He then opened his showroom, another vast, high-ceilinged room that was crammed so full of antiques, building parts, wooden carts, musical instruments, furniture, and artwork, you have to carefully weave and pick your way through. “No place to put anything else,” he joked.

What about these houses? The Urban Consciousness Index starts with the house for many reasons. Here in the West, the house is the primary form of building; and in America in particular, it has been commented that our relatively young culture is still very much rooted in the house as the genesis for all our other buildings. Religious building as church-house. Governmental building as meeting-house. Commercial building as shop-house. So the house is still the model, in our minds, for other buildings.

Why Southeast Asia to start with? Simply because firsthand experience is the best and most honest basis for good stories, and by contrasting it with the here-and-now, it will bring to light some differences in how we think about our own situation. So for today, the transcendental will derive from the strange and unfamiliar. On future Thursday nights, we will remember that the transcendental can come from sources other than the strange and unfamiliar.

Story: The Spirit House Before land is cleared to build a building, the animists-Buddhists in many parts of Asia erect a small structure to house the spirit of this land. Each land contains multiple spirits of the rocks, of the water, and of the region. A special house is erected just for these guys. This spirit house is decorated with flowers, incense, candles; daily food offerings to the land-spirit are given, and the spirit house is kept clean and in good condition. This effort towards the spirit house is a form of respect towards the land and apostrophizes nature, but it has the subtle effect of a small bit of humility and sense of place. Imagine what our cities might be like if we were to erect spirit houses whenever a new building is built. Yes, even high rise buildings in large cities have spirit houses dedicated to them.

Story: Toko-bashira In a sacred place within each building, the Buddhists carefully integrate an imperfection: one wood member is left in its natural state. If it is aged, salvaged, and shows great weathering, wormholes, or other natural wear, so much the better.

Story: Phi who guard the house There are in total nine territorial guardian spirits. These are: Protector of the House; Protector of the Gates and Stairways: Protector of the Bridal Chamber; Protector of the Animals; Protector of the Store-houses and Barns; Protector of the Fields and Paddies; Protector of the Orchards and Gardens; Protector of the Terrace; and Protector of the Temple and Religious Establishments.

When the building is complete, the Buddhists come and say some prayers at the front door of the house. There is some singing, a glass of wine, and then the dabbing of a prayer on the door jamb or the door head facing out. This prayer blesses the building. Everyone entering and leaving the building can repeat the prayer. This christening of the building is never washed off.

Thus, the final building has displaced spirits, and new spirits come to take their place, as parts of a new building. The building is imperfect, recognizing man’s imperfect nature and again recognizing man’s relationship with nature. And the front door is given physical evidence of a blessing, again a reference to regional spirituality.

All of these actions arise out of a mind-set tilted away from the anonymous city, towards the village, the country. Asia, up until globalization, was all about the village, and a balance between man and nature. Country village lifestyle has been abandoned for the city. Today, the vast Asian cities operate just like ours in the west: giant vacuum cleaners that suck the life out of the villages.

Story: The price of building Further, in the Asian village, the Owner typically knows the Builder socially prior to having the house built. In a bizarre ritual, the Builder finishes the house and the Owner comes to visit it. The builder still owns it and must turn it over to the Owner, and a symbolic ritual ensues wherein the Owner and Builder bargain with the whole village watching. The Owner bids for the building, and the Builder rejects the bid, and then the Owner bids less, and the Builder rejects this bid, until finally an insignificant price is settled upon. This ritual again reinforces the position of the building against nature – something of little value, in contrast to the world around them (usually a rain forest).

By contrast, the West disregards these spirits of the land and of the building, such as they may be. Our lifestyle is too abstract to consider the spirit-nature and body-nature of our buildings.

Introducing The Urban Consciousness Index

After nearly 20 years of on-and-off contemplation, Poolside Studios has catalogued our urban environment and assigned an Urban Consciousness Index to our current built state. After a short explanation, we are proud to announce the Index reading for today.

Similar to the weather report or the Dow Jones, the Urban Consciousness Index reports on the state of our urban form. This will be tracked over the next several weeks to spot any trends.

The Urban Consciousness Index is defined as the average urbanity of our city. Some random, arbitrary factors that influence this index are as follows:

  • Production-home subdivisions. The closer in to the Urban Core of our city, the higher the influence. Subdivisions, whether Neotraditional or non-political, lower the UCI. Even if they are small urban infill. These are easy to spot: soulless, eviscerated residences, usually stucco with skintight windows, ultrathin, tight overhangs. Austere or ornamented, these can be found springing up like mushrooms where land values are low.
  • Artist’s Lofts: These are the saviors of many failed development, the last resort for an owner who can’t find any legitimate rental for his office, industrial, or condominium space. Artists have good instincts and can smell a bargain; if a conversion yields full artist’s lofts, the UCI goes up.
  • Mass Transit: Obviously, full buses and trains increase the UCI. Empty buses lower it.
  • Increase in Public Space: The opening of a city park, a new public main street, a public school, an urban plaza somewhere, provide an urban form for free exchange and free gathering – this raises the UCI. Closing a park, privatizing a property, all lower the UCI.
  • Structure: Building Stock is valued by our scientists using the Rossi method: is the building an urban artifact? If the building infills its space appropriately and can be recycled in the future, it raises the UCI. If a building is poorly planned, contrived, cloyingly retrogressive in style, or is weak and turns its back on the street, it lowers the UCI.
  • Gated subdivisions always lower the UCI.

And now, the Urban Consciousness Index. Tonight is the official rollout of the Index, so we are setting the benchmark today.

24 April UCI = 100

After all, the Index has to start somewhere. 100 is as good as any place. During the next seven days, please observe the state of our urban form. Any new buildings opening up in your neighborhood…how do they look? Commuter Rail in trouble…how will this affect you?

Next week, we will adjust the UCI based on what has happened in the intervening time.

Some factors to watch for in the coming weeks that will affect the UCI:

↓ Commuter Rail In Danger – Tallahassee politicians are trying to kill commuter rail. Will they win? Poolside Studios will track this and report to you next week.

↓ Mills Park – Now that Mills and Nebraska has been cleared, the empty acreage is storage for precast doubletees…for a parking garage somewhere else. Based on their website, it doesn’t look like those garage parts are blossoming into “an urban mixed-use community of distinction” anytime soon.

SESSION 2: The Future Shop

Good evening and welcome to Stardust. This Thursday night, and for the next 2 Thursday nights, the next hour will be stories about buildings. And we will report the Urban Consciousness Index also to you so you can prepare for tomorrow.

Story: Meierboxes The future city is a series of white porcelain-panel boxes (“meier” will replace building due to his early use of these panels). Onto these panels will be projected a holographic image of whatever the owner wants – an architectural style, a movie, perhaps a camera feed from the street or something else; still pictures from other places, or art. Architecture is completely gone, replaced by building-as-theater. During the day no one cares to look at the exterior of the city buildings, as we only inhabit the interiors. At night, when it cools off a little bit, we might come outdoors if we can fend off the monstrous mosquitos.

Story: This is in Smaller buildings such as houses will be made of plastic, aluminum, and built-up sheets of thin material that are tough like Teflon sheets but that can be replaced quickly and easily. Teflon sheets stretched on tubing. Some buildings will be made using accretion technology near the coast. Thin is in. Thick is out. Mass is ass.

People will collect mass; make furniture and decorative displays out of it. Photographs of stone walls etc. will be a link to the past.

Story: NeoHome Depot You can go to the store and get new buildings parts, without experience, people are able to put them together themselves. Items like appliances and cabinets, most people take them with when they move, just like furniture. The house itself may or may not be recycled.

Vast subdivisions in Florida, wiped out by hurricanes, stand only as high as the floor slabs now. The slabs are built upon, and left to be taken over by the jungle, breaking up slowly. Parking becomes their new use. Redevelopers will scrape clean the slabs, guarantee no old nails or screws, and the slab becomes a parking/machine level. You will have about as many machines as could fit into a travel trailer. Some will need more, a lot of people will get travel trailers and just park them on the slab, because the air conditioner, fuel cell, power inverter, cistern, composting bin, waste treatment plant, and computer server will all fit into the trailer, itself a conversion of an old travel trailer that can house these machines. The inside of these travel trailers will be as compact and grody as the inside of Mir.

Story: Electricity will be viciously expensive Appliances such as refrigerators will get even huger and incorporate fuel cells that need distilled water every so often. Cooktops and other appliances that need a lot of electron-volts will require permits. Air conditioners will be personal and carried with everyone like a briefcase. You will have a portable one in your house perhaps, or like most of the third world, you will have 2 or 3 little rice-rocket types that you turn on and off as you go from room to room.

Electric and fuel cell cars will be for most people. Huge diesel trucks and trains will dominate the road.

Since it will be hot everywhere, we will rediscover Canada as a great summer vacation spot to get away from the heat.

Story: Form follows function

Sense of place and respect for the environment will become ludicrously irrelevant in our new digital lifestyle. Our “mud huts”, destroyed in furious storms, will be replaced by these temporary-permanent aluminum and plastic creations. These will at first be made to simulate the stucco boxes they replace. Eventually the vocabulary of plastic and aluminum tubing will express itself – buildings will look slightly more like boats or airplanes.

In fact the aerodynamic qualities of buildings might be useful for energy generation and other things…a roof form that can keep a consistent microclimate that makes a gentle breeze could be used to ventilate the machines that serve it, or perhaps generate a pressure head on a pipe, for plumbing purposes.

Buildings will either be above the ground or in the ground

Slab on grade is dead. The slab is for the lowly travel trailer housing your machines; your vehicle collection (bicycle, moped, car), and will have a stair and dumbwaiter up to your jetsthof

Story: The pole structure reborn The jetsthof, elevated above the slab, shades the travel trailer and provides security. Elevation also helps with the bugs. The upper deck is usually aluminum or steel, on which is erected an aluminum tube skeleton using bolt-type connectors. The tube diameter is about 3”, an 8’ tube weighs about 50 pounds, light enough that an unskilled person can erect these without a great deal of trouble. The tubes, once erected, have snap-on attachments to take data wiring and a power system.

The power cables are all for low-voltage wiring, which helps with the wiring diameter (copper is expensive and therefore a 14 gauge wire is cheaper than 12 gauge). The strongest light in the house, over the bathroom mirror, is probably 20 watts – the rest of them are less than 10. All LED and once installed, the house can be built around them. The bulb never needs to get replaced, it just needs proper ventilation.

Story: Organic Plumbing Tubes Nanotube research will create large-scale carbon atom tubes that can grow in the field by applying a low-voltage, tuned electric charge. Plumbing is now carbon tubes, leakproof (except where the tube ends and is connected to a fixture – plumbing leaks have been the curse of our existence since ancient times). Tubes can be “grown” from the plumbing fixtures, both waste and supply, and connected to the former plumbing supply and sanitary sewer.

Plumbing automatically grows towards the sky, capturing rainwater, eventually bulging out under the floor to create a cistern. The cistern can have udders on it for water. Organically grown tubes connect this cistern through a filter system to the kitchen and bathrooms.

Once the utilities have grown around the bones, connective tissue and muscles are installed. Architectural muscles will be used to open and close doors and windows, and move items that need to be moved. These muscles will expand and contract hydraulically, again using the same principle that the plumbing system grows from. Or perhaps they are some kind of synthetic muscle made of silicon, that is electrically activated – again low voltage.

One will truly be living inside a circuit. This vision for a future house is actually inspired by a 4-year-old boy’s fascination with circuits and his observation that they look like cities. This is not a new observation, but you will truly be living inside a computer.

Story: A new facade every year When you are ready, the shrink-wrapper truck will stop by and shrink-wrap your house. You will have already picked out the exterior and interior appearance and a computer controls exactly how the shrinkwrap is installed. For example, you can program in your house and tell it you want a blue accent wall in the living room, you can choose the blue, and the computer in the truck will be able to install this for you. The inside face and outside face of the tubes will be shrink-wrapped and the wires, plumbing, etc. will be trapped inside. THEN, the shrink-wrap truck inserts a nozzle into the space between the sheets of shrinkwrap, and it squirts aerogel into the gap, completely filling it just like you would fill up a balloon with water. The shrinkwrap bulges a little bit here and there – the aerogel needs to be placed carefully.

This aerogel has a unique property bonding it to the shrinkwrap, and a chemical reaction adheres them together, creating one unified substance with two skins.

The inside skin is doped, and it acquires the sheen and hardness of an eggshell.

The outside skin is gelcoated like a boat, given a sealer. This comprises the house shell and over time it calcifies, gets harder and harder. At the end of a week the shell is hard enough to meet the loads placed on it, and you can move in.

Exterior windows are programmed into the shell and remain clear. These are also programmed into the shrinkwrap process.

The 3” aluminum tubes make excellent fuel cells. These are sealed inside the tubes, and electric circuit wires lead out of them and connect to the walls. The fuel cell batteries have feed and waste tubes also which need to be organically grown into them.

The roof is almost always photovoltaic. This is applied over the shrinkwrap roof and the airspace creates a cooling effect as the hot air rises and moves across the shady surface.

Perhaps this is also a cooling tower? Hard to control humidity which could affect the solar cell above.

Self-cleaning solar cells will need to be researched. Perhaps also the 3” tubes are batteries for the solar cell. If Toyota can seal a nickel-metal-hydride battery in a car for 8 years then the tubes could have batteries sealed inside them also.

The Urban Consciousness Index

Last week, we rolled out the Urban Consciousness Index. If you were here, you were lucky enough to hear the premise behind the UCI, so we won’t repeat it here. We will repeat the definition for you:

The Urban Consciousness Index is defined as the average urbanity of our city. Since last week, the following events have caused the UCI to fluctuate from its baseline of 100:

  • A
  • B
  • C
  • D
  • E
  • F

And now, let’s hear the UCI for this week:

1 May UCI = ###

Next week, we will adjust the UCI based on what has happened in the intervening time.

SESSION 3: Who Cares?

Good evening and welcome to Stardust. This Thursday night, the next hour will be stories about buildings. And we will report the Urban Consciousness Index also to you so you can prepare for tomorrow.

Tonight’s session is called Who Cares. In fact, other people are talking about the same thing, and here is what they are saying and why they care.

Life Inside a Diagram

If Rykwert is right, our built environment has become a diagram rather than a model. In other words, we live inside abstract space, rather than concrete space. We no longer value the concreteness of our city but rather seem to focus only on the abstract.

  • Communication: My space dot com is how we relate to each other; this has replaced Main Street.
  • Travel: We are adept at moving inside airconditioned cars, listening to music or talking on the phone, completely cut off from the built environment;
  • Inhabitation: air conditioning again causes us to avoid the outdoors
  • “Public space is dead” – Liebskind. We only want to participate in private space.
  • The mall is now the old public space.
  • Digital stimulation replaces analog stimulation.
  • Architecture is whatever you want it to be; it doesn’t matter anymore.

The New Suburbanism

On the East Coast, we have been subjected to some shrill polemics regarding neighborhood development and liveability. It has gotten to this point because our neighborhoods have gotten just godawful, becoming sinks and spawning depreciation cities. By shouting loud enough, the theorists have managed to sway enough of the buying public to create an authentic movement, called New Urbanism. The premise of this movement is that Density is OK. In fact, density is Real OK. And to prove it, the New Urbanists have a few towns to point to as case studies in density.

These towns are designed, not organically grown. Not to be trusted to the forces of the marketplace, the towns are planned from the macroscale (what you might see flying over them) down to the microscale – how many inches your house must be elevated above the street, what shade of beige you can paint it. None of this is new – planned communities have been built since Levittown – but the new part is the ideology behind it. New Urbanism believes that the best year was approximately 1935, or thereabouts, and that these new neighborhoods should resemble as closely as possible this idyllic time.

Now, financial flames are testing the heat shield of New Urbanism. Will it withstand the foreclosure fires that have caused a meltdown of value? Will New Urbanism neighborhoods survive intact, or will they be dragged into depreciation like all the rest of the neighborhoods?

The rise of New Urbanism was inevitable perhaps. In our first lecture we point out that the built form of our city has become less and less important to most people. The New Urbanists believe strongly that the built form of our city is highly important. They are the alchemists, dispensing front porches, front yards, alleyways, and parks in just the right doses to make us healthy.

New Urbanism promotes the village mentality over that of the cosmopolitan city. What was good enough for the 1930’s is good enough for the new millennium.

This idea was endorsed at first by Disney, creating Celebration. Here in our own backyard we have the prototype example of New Urbanism. In reality, a test model was built in the Florida Panhandle in the 1980’s and the lessons from this were applied to Celebration.

New Urbanism is on the right track. The problem is the focus on the physical form of the city, rather than on a powerful, shared moral vision to hold these new villages together. New Urbanism seems to emphasize faddishness, stylistic issues, and the worship of the individual over the family or the community.

The zealous black-or-white approach, casting all other forms of the city as evil. The official trade association is even called “The Congress of the New Urbanism”, staining it with political leanings. The movement is complete with manifesto, supporting literature, and squabbling between the true believers and the more progressive members.

And of course it has a devil against which to valiantly fight: the car. Oh, the new urbanists hate the car. Cities should be walkable first. Hide your cars – put them in the back, not the front. Cars breed crime, cars breed bad behavior.

None of this is bad or wrong. But taken to its extremes, this is somewhat ridiculous-sounding and denies the last 80 or so years of history in America.

In the meantime, on the West Coast, Joel Kotkin questions the values of the New Urbanism. His main thesis is “the car isn’t so bad, and it isn’t going away, so let’s learn to live with it better.” Kotkin points out many towns where the car peacefully coexists with pedestrians and a vibrant street life.

The era of the Empire State’s reign over America has come to an end, and a new dawn of political power, in the hands of the Sunshine State, is upon us. After the 2010 Census, New York will lose two congressional seats and Florida will gain two. It will put both states’ delegations at 27 seats and mark the first time that Florida has caught up with once-mighty New York.

Mr. Kotkin’s movement is jokingly called “The New Suburbanism”. Paradoxically, his writing is broader and deeper, but his supporters are fewer.

This is mostly because Mr. Kotkin’s approach is pragmatic rather than idealistic. The idealists create a patternbook from which the town can be cut – with no deviations. The pragmatic approach says look, let’s trust in the individual’s freedom of choice here and there. Rather than a prescribed strategy, Mr. Kotkin believes in building a town with some overall basic ideals in mind:

The urban ideal has demonstratated a remarkable resilience.

Far more important to the future of cities than constructing new buildings will be the value people place on the urban experience. Great structures or physical attributes can help start a great city, or aid in its growth, but cannot sustain its long-term success.

In the end, a great city relies on those things that engender for its citizens a peculiar and strong attachment, sentiments that separate one specific place from others. Urban areas, in the end, must be held together by a consciousness than unites their people in a shared identiy. “The city is a state of mind,” Robert Ezra Park observed, “a body of customs, and of unorganized attitudes and sentiments.”

Kotkin begins city planning with core beliefs such as a conception of public virtue, and some classical questions of people’s relationships, taken from Bell. These questions include due process, freedom of belief, and basic property rights.

Cities must both order and inspire the complex nature of masses of people.

The Urban Consciousness Index

If you’ve attended the previous sessions, you are already familiar with the Urban Consciousness Index. We have cataloged events during the past week, and our mathematicians have calculated the UCI for this week.

And now, lets do the numbers:

8 May 2008 UCI = ###

Stay tuned for the UCI update at our very next session.

SESSION 4: Why Sense of Place Matters

A Winter Evening

Window with falling snow is arrayed,
Long tolls the vesper bell,
The house is provided well,
The table is for many laid.

Wandering ones, more than a few,
Come to the door on darksome courses.
Golden blooms the tree of graces
Drawing up the earth’s cool dew.

Wanderer quietly steps within;
Pain has turned the threshold into stone,
There lie, in limpid brightness shown,
Upon the table bread and wine.

–George Trakl

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