Mediocrity reigns in too much architecture. Sometimes, that is the fault of architects who take the easy route, and sometimes it is clients who just want a cheap building, but quite often the problem is structural. A system of codes and regulations, guided by forces that are essentially economic, controls our built environment in such a way that it discourages anything that stands out in terms of size and configuration, or in terms of both quality or even just appearance. How to create more variety in the world we build is something that architects, planners, and members of the communities in which they work need to address.
The problem is most evident in the restrictions that have caused the majority of urban developments on the edges of downtowns to turn into pancakes, rarely more than eight to 12 stories tall, and usually only five. This is the result of a combination of building regulations, NIMBYism, and the theories of New Urbanism. It has led to the kind of wastelands of badly built, beige blocks that, at least in this country, are built out of wood studs, plywood, and drywall over a base of concrete blocks and steel. The buildings that make up this landscape are rabbit warrens with minimally sized dwelling units that rent or sell for maximum prices to the same mainly young and semi-wealthy demographic. They cover vast stretches of former parking lots, train yards, and other remnants of urban blight.
Pancake development like this is not a prerogative just of this country, however, as I pointed out in my recent columns about Oslo and the Bay Area. These developments essentially come into existence everywhere due to the same confluence of forces. First, planners are loath to allow anything that obstructs views or is visible from existing developments. Part of the resistance then comes from the idea that we should not take away anybody’s light or prospect, even though their homes or apartment buildings likely stole those same amenities from what was there before. Another reason for the resistance is that it is now commonplace verity that high-rises are evil, disconnecting us from an organic relation from the ground while overpowering their neighbors with an a-human scale. All of these ideas reinforce the theories of New Urbanism and form-based planning codes, which hold up the dense apartment buildings of late 19th-century cities as an ideal—even though those dense structures were so unattractive to most people, rich and poor, that they fled to the suburbs as quickly as they could. Nowadays, planners and developers—having learned their lessons back in the days of urban renewal and untrammeled development—both know that resistance to their efforts will be considerably less if they lay low, in both senses of the word.
The result is quantity without quality and density without differentiation. One of the largest examples of a desert of and by design is the Mission Bay area of San Francisco, where the miasma of the mud flats on which the Southern Pacific built its main West Coast train yards has turned into block upon block of indistinguishable barracks for the technorati, punctuated by the closed compounds of research buildings and laboratories. Structures like these started spreading across Southern California and the Bay Area as early as the 1980s, and you can now find similar developments on the edges of nearly every city in the United States, from Boston to Miami to Cleveland, to even Ohio's Columbus and Cincinnati, and all the way to Phoenix and Salt Lake City.
What is the alternative? The answer is variety, happenstance, and a much more fine-grained approach to planning. We have to find a way to break through planning by default and NIMBY-istic flattening to allow a variety of uses, sizes, heights, and appearances to flourish in our cities. We already have such contrasts in the inner cities, which most planners and designers hold up as the model of urbanity we would like to expand to areas between the central business districts and the first-ring suburbs where most of this development is taking place.
Cities grow not as oozing floods of developments, but in clumps and nodes. Once, these developments happened around churches, train stations, and the intersections of roads, on cornfields and other open and flat lots. Now, they often occur around hospitals, universities, government offices, and transit stops, on what used to be industrial or infrastructure terrain. We should let buildings gather there, let them grow tall, let them nestle as they fit best, and let them be of the variety that feeds the diversity of city, from retail and offices, to make full use of whatever attractors is causing chaos to cohere in these sites.
We should also acknowledge that features or the landscape that are attractive should be left to be enjoyed by as many people as possible. Where there is water, we should let buildings be tall, but we should be careful to permit view corridors past them, as Vancouver does. Where there is a hilltop, we should ring its upper slopes with dense development while leaving the top as a shared amenity, as they do in many countries in Asia. Where there is a public park, we should surround it with high-rises, as New York’s Central Park is. And we shouldn’t line big boulevards with housing. That idea might have been attractive in Haussmann’s Paris but, when the street is a six-lane corridor of cars and perhaps noisy trams, we should not force people to live next to that noise. Instead, we should layer residential spaces back from areas that we should treat as linear open spaces.
Within these new developments, we should also stop the spread of Type 5 (or 3, depending on your state, meaning wood frame construction up to five stories tall over a base of concrete or concrete block for parking) developments. Considering how poorly most of them are built and how fully they are used, I believe they will be ruins before too long. They overtax our public services without giving anything back in terms of public space or amenities. Instead of these urban warehouses of boxes, we should contrast small, courtyard or U-shaped units with high-rises and mid-rises, and even with small businesses and single-family homes.
How do we decide what goes where? By being both pro- and re-active. Establish landscape contours that trace and develop the natural terrain and historical patterns, and let development be dynamic: When the first developer makes his or her move, let the size and nature of that building help define what might happen around it to both contrast with and support the configuration of the first building. That might make the process of planning more unpredictable, but we have the predictive power of algorithms and scenario planning to help us guide such an approach.
Building a city out and up is not bad. Bad buildings that replicate their own banality block after block are. We can prevent the soul-sucking prospect of mid-rise shadows looming over Starbucks on every corner. We can do so by planning and by letting go. As Robert Venturi, the early sage of diverse architecture, quoted August Heckscher: “Chaos is very near; its nearness, but its avoidances … gives force.”