Loeb 45 Journal: Michael Kimmelman, Status Update and Challenge

Leadership is the “unsung value” of the Loeb Fellowship – in fact it is the critical value.
–Deborah Goddard, LF ’03 and Loeb Alumni Council President

From his multiple perspectives as architecture critic, art historian and contemporary art critic (and classically trained pianist), Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times powerfully addresses, interprets and extends the role of architecture and the value of good design to advance the just and equitable societies we seek to build and to inhabit. In introducing him as the closing speaker at the Loeb 45th Anniversary Celebration and Alumni Reunion, GSD Dean Mohsen Mostafavi commended Kimmelman’s expansive and inclusive dialogue encompassing context or situation, which helps architects, designers and planners see their work better.

Dean Mostafavi suggested that mapping the global impact of the Loebs would produce a new metrics, a “great diary of good news.” He said there is “something in the air now–‘linkages’” that will have a greater impact on society. “We see it here at the school, where the Loeb fellows integrate with our students and faculty, creating opportunities to be involved. Let’s build on this set of relationships.” In print, media, lectures and symposia, Kimmelman promotes linkages that engage a broader audience, encouraging appreciation for the importance of creative imagination in our expectation of the built environment.

Taking the podium, Kimmelman outlined the brief he was assigned when invited to address the Loeb Fellowship: 1) to address relevant trends in the built environment now; 2) to speak to justice and resiliency and 3) to imagine the “What if?” If he ruled the world for a day, what would he do?

2015, Kimmelman reminded us, is on course to be the hottest year ever recorded. He revisited the global consequences with vivid images of deluged communities in Hoboken, Brooklyn and Tampa, where rooftops skim the water’s surface like children’s rafts. The water will come again. “Now what?” is our insistent challenge.

As a global people, we are also living in the first urban century, as cities proliferate and populations grow. Cities, sites of wealth creation, are our change agents. Forces of dynamic urban transformation, says Kimmelman, include urban renewal, deindustrialization, planned shrinkage, mass incarceration, the (ongoing) foreclosure crisis and gentrification.

People are attracted by living close to work and walkable amenities, as well as mobility options that allow freedom from car dependency. In burgeoning cities, space and affordability are acute problems. Pushing low income residents out of desirable city centers to peripheries with poor transportation infrastructure, farther away from employment opportunities, exacerbates income inequality. Kimmelman said, “The nation’s poorest families spend more than 40 percent of their take home pay on transportation.” Urban communities need diverse populations, he argues, “to have teachers for our children, nurses who will care for us, and security forces to police our streets – it is critical to our welfare, even if only self-interested.” With the Federal government in retreat–a legacy of Reagan-era “cost containment,” which Kimmelman acidly translates as “do nothing for the poor”–“we eke out whatever public amenities we can through private means” in public-private partnerships. Too often in these profit-oriented developments, “inequality is made literally concrete” in poorly designed low-income housing.

Kimmelman identifies in this breach an opportunity for architects beyond “architecture as sculpture.” In a fault-of-judgment holdover from 20th century housing failures such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, public officials tend not to listen to architects and planners. As a result, in a bid for “strategic resistance,” young practitioners are increasingly “wading into the muck of real estate and finance” in order to become decision makers and not just hired hands in urban redevelopment, delivering work that both performs financially and is well designed as a matter of fundamental social justice and equity.

Kimmelman circled back to the disruptive global arenas of climate change upheaval and political dislocation to offer examples of opportunity for design-driven intervention and impact. He cited the Big U, the Bjarke Ingels Group winning entry for the 2013 Re-Build by Design competition, which proposes a green belt for Lower Manhattan integrating resilience strategies with new green public space development. The Netherlands offers a centuries-long tradition of “living with water,” including landscape sculpted to channel rising water levels and houses designed to float, tethered to mainland utilities, water and waste systems by flexible pipelines.

A Syrian refugee camp in Jordan models the efficiency and fundamental human dignity of intentional design, acknowledging the political reality that “temporary” residence will be counted in decades, not months or even years. The community of displaced working class entrepreneurs–people, “who have lost everything, and that’s a lot”–may have “settled a camp, but they built a city, on their own. They made streets and shops and houses. They stole all the electricity they could to light them. They had a septic system and a travel agency, even though it was illegal to travel in and out of the camp! They even had a pizza delivery service that knew the addresses of residents better than the officials so-called in charge.”

In the growing crisis of refugee migration, with settlement populations equal to countries the size of France, Kimmelman urged, let’s acknowledge that these are new urban settlements. “Whether we like it or not. We are creating cities.” Rather than retrofit, which he argues “is insane,” we should design and build accordingly for human dignity, social justice, and basic equity.

Kimmelman offered other inspiring urban design interventions: an MIT project for a nomadic community in Kenya; social housing tower rehabilitations in Paris’s 17th arrondissement; “Sugar Hill” apartments in Harlem designed by David Adjaye. There is architect Tatiana Bilbao’s $8,000 Leggo-like “starter home,” designed in response to Mexico’s social housing crisis, and an experiment in communal living in Berlin, featuring balconies that wrap the façade and have become a favorite space for children to run around. “If you are going to have sex,” Kimmelman cautioned, “you are advised to draw the curtains.” Berlin being Berlin, he quipped, “Everyone is happy.”

Kimmelman concluded with an unexpected shift from the city as place to the city as flow. How we move through our urban territory, he projects, will be radically reinvented in the fast-approaching future. The advent of the autonomous vehicle will return 60 percent of our public urban spaces now monopolized by cars and trucks to public use. Imagine the impact–imagine the opportunity for design–when streets can be narrowed from 11-foot lanes to 6 to 7 feet because we no longer need to accommodate parking, idling town cars and delivery trucks. Developers can apply the money saved from parking obligations to better housing. Our streets will be safer as traffic accidents and fatalities, largely caused by human error, decrease.

Our take-away in sum: the water is coming, the people are here, and the city is moving in ways we can only begin to imagine. Loeb Fellows are poised to be at the forefront of the design revolution. Happy 45th Anniversary!

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