Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Thinking big

On Monday, the WSJ ran the following:

"The Shame of the Cites: French Unrest Finds A Home in Projects ... France's public-housing projects, known as 'cites,' are an experiment in utopian urban planning gone badly wrong. Inspired by the famed modernist architect Le Corbusier ... a new generation of planners dreamed up communities that were supposed to be perfectly functional 'machines for living.' Hundreds of these projects sprang up across France. The structures were immense slabs of concrete up to 20 stories high and hundreds of yards long, each housing as many as 1,500 people. ..."

Today's WSJ reports on projects closer to home: "New Buildings Help People Fight Flab ... Designs Encourage Climbing Stairs and Lots of Walking; Cheeky Signs on the Elevator ... In July 2007 when students at Virginia Commonwealth University attend classes in a re-designed business-school building, they'll face a new hurdle: a staircase. Most of the 3,000 students now at the Richmond, Va., business school take elevators to reach classrooms. But in the new structure, the elevators will be especially slow-moving. They will also be tucked away at the rear, while the atrium will feature a prominent set of stairs ..."

Visit Berkeley, CA, or many other enlightened places and experience traffic-calming, a series of designs and impediments put in place to make driving onerous and, it is hoped, less frequent. Whereas transportation planning was once about improving access, this version targets the opposite.

There are, then, two problems. Not only is social engineering suspect, but it is also apparently irresistable to many designers. The challenge of building facilities that perform their intended functions is apparently not lofty enough.