Floating cities are no longer science fiction

Friday, November 17th, 2017

The New York Times is willing to describe floating cities as no longer science fiction:

Mr. Quirk and his team are focusing on their Floating Island Project in French Polynesia. The government is creating what is effectively a special economic zone for the Seasteading Institute to experiment in and has offered 100 acres of beachfront where the group can operate.

Mr. Quirk and his collaborators created a new company, Blue Frontiers, which will build and operate the floating islands in French Polynesia. The goal is to build about a dozen structures by 2020, including homes, hotels, offices and restaurants, at a cost of about $60 million. To fund the construction, the team is working on an initial coin offering. If all goes as planned, the structures will feature living roofs, use local wood, bamboo and coconut fiber, and recycled metal and plastic.

The people it prefers, it consumes

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017

The techno-commercial wing of the neoreactionary blogosphere, as Nick Land like to call it, has an obvious fondness for Pacific Rim city-states. like Singapore and Hong Kong, but these right-wing utopias have a problem. As Spandrell pointed out, Singapore is an IQ shredder:

How many bright Indians and bright Chinese are there, Harry? Surely they are not infinite. And what will they do in Singapore? Well, engage in the finance and marketing rat-race and depress their fertility to 0.78, wasting valuable genes just so your property prices don’t go down. Singapore is an IQ shredder.

The accusation is acute, Land says, and can be generalized:

Modernity has a fertility problem. When elevated to the zenith of savage irony, the formulation runs: At the demographic level, modernity selects systematically against modern populations. The people it prefers, it consumes. Without gross exaggeration, this endogenous tendency can be seen as an existential risk to the modern world. It threatens to bring the entire global order crashing down around it.

In order to discuss this implicit catastrophe, it’s first necessary to talk about cities, which is a conversation that has already begun. To state the problem crudely, but with confidence: Cities are population sinks. Historian William McNeil explains the basics. Urbanization, from its origins, has tended relentlessly to convert children from productive assets into objects of luxury consumption. All of the archaic economic incentives related to fertility are inverted.

[...]

Education expenses alone explain much of this. School fees are by far the most effective contraceptive technology ever conceived. To raise a child in an urban environment is like nothing that rural precedent ever prepared for. Even if responsible parenting were the sole motivation in play, the compressive effect on family size would be extreme. Under urban circumstances, it becomes almost an aggression against one’s own children for there to be many of them.

Grass pyramids cut noise pollution

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Airport noise travels far in a flat country like the Netherlands:

The tricky thing about dampening airport noise is that the noise is a very low frequency with a very long wavelength, around 36 feet, so a simple barricade will do little to stop the drone. But in 2008, airport staff noticed that noise levels were reduced every fall by an unsuspecting phenomenon: plowed fields. After examining the scene, they discovered that the ridges and furrows of the field were spaced in a way that they partially silenced the hum.

So, the firm H+N+S Landscape Architects teamed up with artist Paul De Kort to produce a series of 150 artificial pyramids of grass, each 6 feet tall and 36 feet apart (the approximate wavelength of airport hubbub). This ingenious method, based on the groundbreaking work of acoustician Ernst Chladni, has effectively reduced noise pollution in the region by half.

Buitenschot Land Art Park

To the amusement of the people in the area, the 80-acre swath of ridges adds entertainment to utility. Paths for pedestrians and bicycles slice between the grass ridges, and De Kort has even incorporated works of art into the park, including “Listening Ear,” a dish with a gap in the middle that amplifies sound, and “Chladni-Pond,” a diamond-shaped pond where park guests can power a wave mechanism with their feet.

Robot cars versus phantom traffic jams

Thursday, May 18th, 2017

A new study suggests that even a few autonomous cars could ease congestion for everyone:

You’ve likely seen the demonstration of phantom traffic jams where cars drive around in a circle to simulate the impact of a single slowing car on a road full of traffic. One car pumps its brakes for no particular reason, and the slowdown ripples through the traffic. Now, the University of Illinois research, led by Daniel Work, shows that placing even just a single autonomous car into one of those circular traffic simulations can dampen the effects of the phantom traffic jam.

The team’s results show that by having an autonomous vehicle control its speed intelligently when a phantom jam starts to propagate, it’s possible to reduce the amount of braking performed further back down the line. The numbers are impressive: the presence of just one autonomous car reduces the standard deviation in speed of all the cars in the jam by around 50 percent, and the number of sharp hits to the brakes is cut from around nine per vehicle for every kilometer traveled to at most 2.5 — and sometimes practically zero.

Because fuel use increases when when cars slow down and have to get back up to speed, the presence of the autonomous vehicle also reduces fuel consumption. According to the calculations by the team, in fact, the savings is as much as 40 percent when averaged across all the cars in the traffic flow.

It’s interesting that these improvements can occur even with a single vehicle in a flow of 20 other cars. And it’s also worth noting that the level of autonomy required to have this effect isn’t the kind that Waymo, Uber, and others are seeking to build — it’s more akin to the adaptive cruise control already featured in many higher-end cars.

This is known as “bad luck”

Sunday, May 14th, 2017

The creative class drives cultural and economic flourishing, Richard Florida argued (in The Rise of the Creative Class), but now the “superstar cities” that attract the creative class have grown increasingly unequal, a problem he dubs The New Urban Crisis:

We find that as a city gets bigger, denser, more productive and more economically successful, inequality rises. In a way, the more successful a city or metro area becomes, the more unequal it becomes, and that is quite challenging.

I’m reminded of what Heinlein had to say about creativity and poverty:

Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

This is known as “bad luck.”

A Hotel California for Apex Predators

Monday, February 20th, 2017

P-45, the King of Malibu, is a hundred-and-fifty-pound male mountain lion:

After killing an alpaca at a Malibu winery in late 2015, he was captured and fitted with a G.P.S. collar by the National Park Service, which designated him the forty-fifth subject in a long-running study, led by a wildlife ecologist named Seth Riley, on the mountain lions of Los Angeles. (The “P” comes from Puma concolor, the species whose common names include puma, panther, catamount, cougar, and mountain lion.) Since P-45 was collared, according to Phillips, he has killed some sixty goats, sheep, llamas, and alpacas, a miniature horse, and a four-hundred-and-fifty-pound heifer: members of the class of rustic pet known as “hobby animals.” Gallingly, he has eaten little — a nibble of heart meat here, a nip of scrotum there. Except in the case of pygmy goats, for which he has a taste, he seems to kill for sport.

Rickards, who has short blond hair and a cheerful manner, grew up on the ranch and runs a cat rescue there. She and Phillips have horses and dogs and, until recently, had alpacas. Then one night P-45 jumped into the alpaca pen, killing two of them. When it happened again last spring, and three more died, Phillips gave away the rest of the herd and turned his attention to pursuing the culprit. To Phillips, P-45 is a sociopath, a freak — “the John Wayne Gacy of mountain lions.”

Mountain Lion P-45

The Santa Monica Mountains extend from the Pacific Coast through the Hollywood Hills, to end in Griffith Park. Urban though Los Angeles is, its mountains are furrowed with densely vegetated canyons full of deer and coyotes, cactuses, live oaks, wheeling hawks — a patchwork of public and private holdings claimed both by top carnivores and by their human counterparts.

The real estate is increasingly contested. At some two hundred and forty square miles, the range is the perfect size for one or two dominant males and several females, along with their young. The National Park Service study is currently tracking ten mountain lions in the area, including three breeding males. There is also an unknown number of uncollared lions. Living at such close quarters intensifies the lions’ natural territorialism; in this population, the leading cause of death is conflict with other lions. But adolescent lions who set out in search of their own hunting grounds often come to an impasse. The range is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Hollywood Freeway (the 101) to the north, and bisected by the 405 between Brentwood and Bel Air. Just as the roads keep native lions in, they also keep outside lions from entering, and first-order inbreeding has become common. Lush but confined, the mountains are a cushy prison, a Hotel California for apex predators, whose future is threatened by a double deficiency: not enough space for a group of lions with not enough genetic differences among them.

As a result, the mountain-lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains is in danger of entering an extinction vortex, a downward spiral in which everything starts to fail. “They could be in the process of genetic flatlining,” Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, says. “Without our assistance, the Santa Monica Mountain pumas are likely to go extinct.” This is what nearly happened to the Florida panthers, in the mid-nineties, when intensive inbreeding caused physical changes that hindered reproduction. According to Riley, who recently published a paper on the subject, if similar problems occur and no new lions enter the area the likelihood of L.A.’s lions disappearing in fifty years is 99.7 per cent. But genetic rescue can come in the form of just one new animal in each generation — in Florida, where the population was larger, it took just six females from Texas to reverse the spiral.

From this point of view, Los Angeles can’t spare a single cat, and certainly not one matching P-45’s profile. According to a preliminary genetic analysis done at Wayne’s lab, P-45 comes from north of the 101: he is an outsider, a lion who successfully navigated the freeway and miles of suburbs to introduce his precious DNA to the Santa Monicas. Under threat, P-45 has inspired a committed following. In November, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times titled “Save P-45” defended his behavior as entirely natural. “Killing P-45 is not the answer,” the editorial said. “Surely there is a better way to manage the conflicts that arise when humans and their domestic animals move into areas that have long served as habitat for wildlife.”

P-45’s alien provenance aggravates the unease that Phillips and his neighbors feel. “I know P-45 is not indigenous to here,” Phillips told me. “I think he was a killer someplace else.” He added, “I’m not too happy about P-45’s genes getting passed down.” Though the young generally travel with their mothers — mountain-lion fathers are more likely to kill their kittens than to train them — he saw the potential for P-45 to accustom his offspring to a life of theft and slaughter. Besides, he said, “I’m tired of living inside a biology project.” If the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the state’s mountain-lion population, or the National Park Service, which he blames for protecting P-45, refused to solve the problem, he warned that vigilante justice would prevail.

“Somebody’s going to shoot him soon,” Phillips said. “They’re just not going to report it. They’re not going to call N.P.S., not going to call Fish and Wildlife. They’re just going to shoot him, pound the collar off with a hammer, put it in a lead box in a bucket of water, and bury P-45 ten feet deep. That will be the end of that story. He will pass from reality into legend.”

Puma concolor, an evolutionary adept that, unlike the sabre-toothed cat, survived the Late Pleistocene Extinction, is found from Tierra del Fuego to the Canadian Yukon. Until successive extermination campaigns largely eradicated mountain lions from the Midwest and the East, they ranged throughout the United States. Now, as urbanization in the West encroaches on their remaining habitat, some are making audacious attempts to reclaim ceded lands. In 2011, a cat from South Dakota travelled more than fifteen hundred miles, to Greenwich, Connecticut, before being struck and killed by an S.U.V. on the Wilbur Cross Parkway.

Los Angeles is one of two megacities in the world that have a population of big cats. In the other, Mumbai, leopards live in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and occasionally eat the humans who make their homes around its edge. Though there have been instances of mountain lions targeting people in California — between 1986 and 2014, there were three fatal attacks — it has never happened in Los Angeles County. (Since the beginning of the twentieth century, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation, there have been fewer than thirty fatal attacks in North America; it is an often cited fact that vending machines kill more people than mountain lions do.) “They’re called ghost cats for a reason — they’re very elusive,” Jeff Sikich, a carnivore biologist with the National Park Service, who manages the field work for the mountain-lion study, told me. “We’ve seen with our data that they do a great job at avoiding us.” But, he said, “in this urban, fragmented landscape, they see us almost every day.”

The Benedict Option

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

The Wall Street Journal discusses the Benedict Option:

When the first few monks arrived in Hulbert, Okla., in 1999, there wasn’t much around but tough soil, a creek and an old cabin where they slept as they began to build a Benedictine monastery in the Ozark foothills.

Dozens of families from California, Texas and Kansas have since followed, drawn by the abbey’s traditional Latin Mass — conducted as it was more than 1,000 years ago — and by the desire to live in one of the few communities in the U.S. composed almost exclusively of traditional Catholics.

There aren’t many jobs nearby. The nearest bank, grocery store and coffee shop are nearly an hour’s drive on country roads. Yet many residents choosing to live near Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey say it is worth the sacrifice.

“Our goal in moving here was to form our children’s conscience and intellect in a particular way, without society taking that authority from us,” said Mark Wheeler, one of the first to settle on the outskirts of the monastery more than a decade ago.

The 100 or so people living here are part of a burgeoning movement among traditional Christians. Feeling besieged by secular society, they are taking refuge in communities like this one, clustered around churches and monasteries, where faith forms the backbone of daily life. Similar villages — some Roman Catholic, others Orthodox or Protestant—have sprung up in Alaska, Maryland, New York and elsewhere, drawing hundreds of families.

As the proportion of Americans without any religious affiliation continues to grow, more Christians are considering where they can go to live out their faith more fully. It has been dubbed the “Benedict Option,” in homage to St. Benedict, who as a young man left the moral decay of ancient Rome to live in the wilderness.

[...]

They attend Mass daily and home-school their children. They seldom use their TV, except to check for tornado warnings, but they do use the internet to order supplies, such as cultures for the goat cheese that they sell. Mr. Wheeler, 52, helped with construction at the monastery.

Last year, they allowed their children — three of whom are old enough to vote — to listen to the presidential debates on the radio for the first time, and then to watch the last few on TV.

“The larger populated areas seem to have rejected the Christian culture and the Christian message,” Mr. Wheeler said. “If I don’t have to re-immerse myself in that, I’m not going to.”

If you pull your kids out of public school and “cut the cord,” I think you get most of the way there, without the economic cost of isolation.

How to Predict Gentrification

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Everyone has theories for why well-educated professionals are moving back into cities:

Perhaps their living preferences have shifted. Or the demands of the labor market have, and young adults with less leisure time are loath to waste it commuting. Maybe the tendency to postpone marriage and children has made city living more alluring. Or the benefits of cities themselves have improved.

“There are all sorts of potential other amenities, whether it’s cafes, restaurants, bars, nicer parks, better schools,” said Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University.

“But a huge piece of it,” she said, “I think is crime.”

New research that she has conducted alongside Keren Mertens Horn, an economist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and Davin Reed, a doctoral student at N.Y.U., finds that when violent crime falls sharply, wealthier and educated people are more likely to move into lower-income and predominantly minority urban neighborhoods.

Their working paper suggests that just as rising crime can drive people out of cities, falling crime has a comparable effect, spurring gentrification.

I love the surprised tone.

The Revolutionary Concept of Standard Sizes Only Dates to the 1920s

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

In 1922, the German government standardized the size of office paper, and this had surprisingly far-reaching effects:

Books could now be standard sizes, making their storage and transportation easier. Mail would be easier to ship, weigh, and sort, and offices would be able to more efficiently store documents, files, binders, and portfolios.

[...]

Uniform-sized books led to standard bookshelves, standard files to standard filing cabinets. Desks could be built to perfectly hold all the paper they needed, without wasting a centimeter. Offices could be built to perfectly fit the desks. Soon different businesses like banks, libraries, and administrative offices could begin to fit together, like a machine.

[...]

By the early 1930s Neufert was an accomplished architect, and a leader in the field of construction technology. In 1936 Hitler implemented a four-year plan to prepare for war, which, among other things, involved rebuilding Berlin into a massive world capital, complete with grand, Parisian-style boulevards, new train stations, and massive apartment buildings.

In 1938 Hitler’s chief architect Albert Speer hired Neufert to, as Speer put it, “oversee the standardization of building parts, and the rationalization to building methods.” He got to lead his own team of designers and technicians. They were called The Neufert Department.

For the project to succeed, construction had to happen quickly and cheaply, and Neufert had to figure out how to streamline and simplify every step of the process. Trying to meet these demands, Neufert thought back to the A Series of paper formats, and what had made them so successful.

The beauty was in this standard’s ability to affect not just paper, but everything that interacts with paper—desks, drawers, offices, mailmen. To have a similar ripple effect throughout all of construction and design, what, then, should you change?

The bricks, of course.

And so he did. He created the Octametric Brick, a standard-sized masonry unit that would come to replace any other sized brick in Germany (the bricks were 12.5 centimeters wide, or one-eighth of a meter, hence its name). Adoption of the brick, as Neufert saw, would create a standardized, modular world that all construction would occur in—no more custom shapes or sizes within buildings, no more worrying that cabinets would be the same height as the stove.

With the Octametric Brick, buildings could still look different and be different sizes, but everything, when reduced to its smallest part, would have this as a base unit. This overarching uniformity, based around the dimensions of a single brick, would be called the Octametric System. Even if products were made of other materials, under this system their dimensions would always have to be evenly divisible by one-eighth of a meter. Everything would finally fit together.

The Nazi government loved it. The Octametric System helped solve several construction issues the regime faced, the most pressing of which was how make the act of building—something that had traditionally been done by skilled craftspeople—simple enough for unskilled laborers to perform. The modular nature of the Octametric System made construction relatively easy and error-proof, more like assembly of building blocks than fine woodworking or masonry.

[...]

While Neufert’s Octametric System never officially spread beyond Germany, it came to have a tremendous effect on building standards around the world. Throughout his life, Neufert continued to update his encyclopedia of architectural standards, Architects Data. Starting in the 1940s, his Octametric System began to reshape the contents of his book. Ideal dimensions within buildings were altered ever-so-slightly, so as to now be divisible by one-eighth of a meter.

Today Architects Data is one of the most popular reference books in architecture. It’s currently in its 40th edition, and has been translated into 20 languages; from France to Argentina to Iran, architects around the world open it up when trying to decide how tall to make a door, or how wide to make a parking spot. In this way the Octametric System still lives on in much of the world, even if most designers have never heard of it, or know anything about the man responsible for its creation.

The Japanese Zoning System

Monday, August 29th, 2016

Alex Tabarrok explains the Japanese zoning system:

Japan has 12 basic zones, far fewer than is typical in an American city. The zones can be ordered in terms of nuisance or potential externality from low-rise residential to high-rise residential to commercial zone on through to light industrial and industrial. But, and this is key, in the US zones tend to be exclusive but in Japan the zones limit the maximum nuisance in a zone. So, for example, a factory can’t be built in a residential neighborhood but housing can be built in a light industrial zone.

[...]

In addition, residential means residential without discrimination as to the type or form of resident.

On that last point, one commenter notes that the Japanese do not have to worry about crime, and Steve Sailer added that “Americans have replaced discrimination by race with discrimination by cost, which works pretty well, but, of course, it’s very expensive.”

How Did People Survive Before Air Conditioning?

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

How did people survive before air conditioning?

They built their houses differently.

We may not think about it much, but the invention of the air conditioner radically changed the way people built buildings, especially in the south. You may have noticed that older buildings tend to have much higher ceilings: this allowed heat to rise so that inhabits could enjoy the cooler space below. Deep eaves and porches protected windows from the heat of the sun, and it was common to plant trees on the east and west sides of a house for additional shade.

In addition to this, rooms were designed with windows on opposite sides of the space, which allowed for cross ventilation. Air likes to have a place to go, so opening up a single window won’t generate much air movement. But open two windows right across from each other and you can get a nice breeze going. In cases where it wasn’t possible to have two windows on opposite sides of a single room, architects would line up rooms in a row, allowing air to flow between them. You can see this in old shotgun homes in New Orleans, or in railroad apartments in New York.

They got outside.

Currently the porch, like the fireplace, is a charming but somewhat vestigial architectural feature. But in the past porches were incredibly important, not just for shading the windows of a home, but also for providing a place where people could sit outside, out of the glare of the sun, and perhaps enjoy a breeze. These days, when it’s hot, people flock inside, but in the past it was the opposite: temperatures indoors and out were more or less the same, and the porch was much less stuffy than the rest of the house. This led to a whole culture of people sitting outside on their porches after supper, which has essentially disappeared. Some older houses were also built with sleeping porches, screened-in porches where one could sleep during the summer, enjoying the breezes but protected from bugs. New Yorkers replicated this by sleeping on the fire escape on especially hot days.

America’s Dying Shopping Malls Have Billions in Debt Coming Due

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

America’s dying shopping malls have billions in debt coming due:

About $47.5 billion of loans backed by retail properties are set to mature over the next 18 months, data from Bank of America Merrill Lynch show.

[...]

Green Street estimates that several hundred malls could shut down over the next decade, with properties reliant on Macy’s, JC Penney and Sears at the most risk. Sales at department stores, once the engines that powered shopping centers across the U.S., have declined almost 20 percent since 2006, according to the firm. About 800 department stores would need to shut down to restore balance between sales and profitability, Green Street said in an April report.

Low-Road Narrative

Monday, June 20th, 2016

Los Angeles failed to keep up with its neighbor to the north:

Unlike the Bay Area, which pursued a “high wage specialization strategy,” Los Angeles, in the interest of social justice, deliberately focused on lower- and middle-tier economic sectors. “Los Angeles’s leaders generated a low-road narrative for themselves, while Bay Area leadership coalesced around a high-road vision for their region,” they write. Such decisions have consequences, many of which are demographic. Had Los Angeles followed the same path as San Francisco, Southern California would have attracted far fewer working-class Latinos. The authors don’t directly state this, but it’s a clear implication of their findings. It’s logical to conclude that any region looking to replicate San Francisco’s success should take an exclusively high-end focus — social justice be damned.

(Hat tip to Battery Horse.)

Benin

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Like Scott Alexander, I’m confused why I never heard about the spectacular medieval African city of Benin before, when “even the people complaining about how neocolonialist society covers up the greatness of Africa only ever talk about Zimbabwe and Kilwa which are both way less impressive”:

The Guinness Book of Records (1974 edition) described the walls of Benin City and its surrounding kingdom as the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era. According to estimates by the New Scientist’s Fred Pearce, Benin City’s walls were at one point “four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops”.

Situated on a plain, Benin City was enclosed by massive walls in the south and deep ditches in the north. Beyond the city walls, numerous further walls were erected that separated the surroundings of the capital into around 500 distinct villages.

Pearce writes that these walls “extended for some 16,000 km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They covered 6,500 sq km and were all dug by the Edo people … They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet”.

Barely any trace of these walls exist today.

Benin City was also one of the first cities to have a semblance of street lighting. Huge metal lamps, many feet high, were built and placed around the city, especially near the king’s palace. Fuelled by palm oil, their burning wicks were lit at night to provide illumination for traffic to and from the palace.

When the Portuguese first “discovered” the city in 1485, they were stunned to find this vast kingdom made of hundreds of interlocked cities and villages in the middle of the African jungle. They called it the “Great City of Benin”, at a time when there were hardly any other places in Africa the Europeans acknowledged as a city. Indeed, they classified Benin City as one of the most beautiful and best planned cities in the world.

In 1691, the Portuguese ship captain Lourenco Pinto observed: “Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.”

[...]

At the centre of the city stood the king’s court, from which extended 30 very straight, broad streets, each about 120-ft wide. These main streets, which ran at right angles to each other, had underground drainage made of a sunken impluvium with an outlet to carry away storm water. Many narrower side and intersecting streets extended off them. In the middle of the streets were turf on which animals fed.

“Houses are built alongside the streets in good order, the one close to the other,” writes the 17th-century Dutch visitor Olfert Dapper. “Adorned with gables and steps … they are usually broad with long galleries inside, especially so in the case of the houses of the nobility, and divided into many rooms which are separated by walls made of red clay, very well erected.”

Dapper adds that wealthy residents kept these walls “as shiny and smooth by washing and rubbing as any wall in Holland can be made with chalk, and they are like mirrors. The upper storeys are made of the same sort of clay. Moreover, every house is provided with a well for the supply of fresh water”.

Occupy Le Corbusier

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

The natural environment has its champions in American politics, but the built environment, where most of us live and work, does not:

Traditional architecture — derived ultimately from the columns, pediments, arches, and other features of ancient Greece and Rome — evolved by trial and error, teaching best practices to builders and architects generation by generation. The centuries forged a classical language that fostered architecture sensitive to the public’s desire for “congenial facades.” But in the mid-20th century, new ideas took over, and the public has ever since been subjected to endless experimentation and vanity projects.

In most cities and towns, the way new buildings look is not influenced by public taste, which is generally traditional. Instead, it is the purview of municipal and institutional facilities committees, design-review panels, the developers who hire architects who cater to the tastes of officialdom, and the local circle of professionals, academics, and journalists who may be relied upon to cluck at any deviation from the elite fashion in the design of new buildings.