20 Minutes in Manhattan

  1. ‚Äč‚ÄčIt begins with a trip down the stairs‚Äč‚Äč
  2. ‚Äč‚ÄčThoughts on stairs‚Äč‚Äč
  3. ‚Äč‚ÄčThey are something that has been buried‚Äč‚Äč
  4. ‚Äč‚Äč(an architectural stem cell that might transform itself into any organ for living)‚Äč‚Äč
  5. ‚Äč‚ÄčThe grid and its difficulties‚Äč‚Äč
  1. ‚Äč‚ÄčThe Mezzanine‚Äč‚Äč
  2. ‚Äč‚ÄčPsychogeography‚Äč‚Äč
  3. ‚Äč‚ÄčTilted Arc‚Äč‚Äč

Easily one of the most important books I've come across on issues of our urban environment. Could have been titled A Brief History of the City for its density of ideas.

  1. It begins with a trip down the stairs

    The walk from my apartment in Greenwich Village to my studio in Tribeca takes about twenty minutes, depending on the route and on whether I stop for a coffee and the Times. Invariably, though, it begins with a trip down the stairs.

    The building I live in is a so-called Old Law tenement and was built in 1892, a date inscribed on the metal cornice that also carries the building’s name: Annabel Lee. Like most such tenements, ours is five stories high (a few are six, even seven), and I live with my wife, Joan, on the top floor.

    1. ‚Äč‚Äč21. Four-Story Limit‚Äč‚Äč

    Later, Sorkin adds: "I have concluded that five stories is a genuinely reasonable limit for a walk-up apartment, certainly for those of us in middle age."

  2. Thoughts on stairs

    ...There is something hypnotic about stair climbing, and as often as I find myself thinking I ought to be at the fourth floor when I am only at the third, I think I've only gotten to three when I'm actually arriving at four.

    ...To my eyes (and legs) the straight run is more elegant and enjoyable to ascend.

    ...The narrowing is both functional and artistic, acknowledging that a stair is likely to be used by a smaller number of people as it rises and forcing the perspective narrowing of the long view upward.

    ...The symbolic weight of stairs is embodied in both their form and their magnitude.

  3. The grid and its difficulties

    Criticism of the grid and its difficulties was voiced from the start. Olmsted himself noted several problems that arose from the fixed dimensions of the city’s blocks: the impossibility of producing sites for very large buildings and campuses; issues of daylighting; the difficulty of creating systems of formal and symbolic hierarchy within the field of uniformity.

    1. ‚Äč‚ÄčUrban Street Network Orientation‚Äč‚Äč

    I've always preferred irregular, more organic-looking cities to strict grids: Boston, Tokyo, and London over New York, Chicago, or Barcelona.

  4. The relative homogeneity of building

    The relative homogeneity of building‚ÄĒand city making‚ÄĒin different cultures is the result of their social organization (large buildings and enclosures are the product of the need for large gatherings), their economic possibilities (only a very rich and powerful Church could produce the cathedrals), their available material and technological resources (very little timber construction is to be seen in desert cultures), and their styles of living (portable tepees and tents are logical if you‚Äôre involved in seasonal migration). The same is true today. New York builds within an essentially narrow range of configurations, materials, and structural systems, its limits set by culture, technology, and economics: small apartments in high-rise buildings result from extremely high costs for land and construction, a growing predominance of non-nuclear-family living arrangements, and a legal framework that continuously negotiates the bar of bulk upward.

  5. All-use environments

    Until the nineteenth century, virtually all cities were ‚Äúall use‚ÄĚ environments. Craft-scale production was typically carried out in a workshop below the home of the craftsperson, which often also served as the site of exchange.

    1. ‚Äč‚ÄčSmall economies‚Äč‚Äč
  6. Sonorisms II

    the symbolic weight of stairs
    the regulation of obnoxious uses
    a collector and transmitter of memory
    Dubai is the world made Disney
    people whose traditions and desires cannot be repressed by mere architecture
    the annihilation of space by time (Marx)

  7. Zoning for diversity

    As production becomes increasingly clean and knowledge-based, as our urban economies tip dramatically to service industries, as racism and ethnic animosities ebb, and as the model of mixed use becomes more and more persuasive and visible, cities are in a position to dramatically rethink zoning as a medium for leveraging and usefully complicating difference, rather than simply isolating it.

  8. Cities designed to facilitate walking

    It seems clear that for reasons of both sustainability and sociability, human power as a means of locomotion in the city should be optimized. Cities designed to facilitate walking will‚ÄĒbecause of their accessible dimensions‚ÄĒlikely be more neighborhood-focused and compact as well as more mixed in use. To be reached by walking, a destination‚ÄĒwhether a school, office, or shop‚ÄĒmust be close at hand. A reasonable walking time (in this culture) for basic necessities is generally considered to be about ten minutes, which translates (at an average walking speed of three to four miles per hour) into six to eight short blocks (or three to four long ones). Using this dimension as a radius, we might begin to think of a comfortable scale for a neighborhood as ten to fifteen New York City blocks.

  9. Obsessed with absolute numbers

    Modernist planning was obsessed with absolute numbers, including the minimum dimensions of rooms, open space per capita, and the one-size-fits-all head counts of neighborhood units. This was often pegged at five to seven thousand and was used as a formula for determining the distribution of schools, shops, sports fields, and other facilities. The failure of such planning is not in its effort to be comprehensive or to equalize access to necessary facilities. It is, rather, the attempt to rationalize choice on the basis of a homogeneous set of subjects, a fixed grammar of opportunities, a remorseless segregation of uses, and a scientistic faith in technical analysis and organization that simply excludes diversity, eccentricity, nonconforming beauty, and choice. The utopian nightmare.

    1. ‚Äč‚ÄčDesired qualities of light‚Äč‚Äč
    2. ‚Äč‚ÄčPredicted Mean Vote‚Äč‚Äč
  10. A collective right to the city

    A collective right to the city was seminally articulated by the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, a right understood not simply as individual access to the goods, services, and spaces of the city but as the right to change the city in accordance with our deepest desires, to steer the very process of urbanization and the way in which the city nurtures the kinds of people we wish to become.

    1. ‚Äč‚ÄčThe Help-Yourself City‚Äč‚Äč
  11. The axis of movement

    Moving in the city means constantly changing the axis of movement. In general, lateral movement is confined to a single plane, what’s called grade, the ground level.

    Because circulation in multistory buildings is fundamentally one way‚ÄĒwhich is to say from the bottom up‚ÄĒthe condition at the top is invariably different from that at the bottom. Rooftop circulation is the domain of Fant√īmas, of cat burglars and fleeing criminals, of lovers, and of those acrobatic enough to negotiate the gaps between buildings.

    1. ‚Äč‚ÄčA Burglar's Guide to the City‚Äč‚Äč
  12. Controlled environments

    ‚ÄúControlled environments‚ÄĚ are another of modernism‚Äôs great obsessions. Extravagant amounts of energy are spent to keep buildings‚ÄĒas well as skyway systems, shopping malls, and domed stadia‚ÄĒat a constant temperature year-round via entirely mechanical means. The folly is not simply a touchy-feely isolation from the authenticities of nature, which can admittedly be cruel, but a larger disciplinary presumption that seeks to extend the centralized authority (central air, central government) of power ever more comprehensively. It is possible that this particular hubris may have pushed Gaia to the tipping point.

    1. ‚Äč‚ÄčAt a uniformly comfortable termperature‚Äč‚Äč
    2. ‚Äč‚ÄčFascination with control‚Äč‚Äč
  13. Ground displaced upward

    Imagine that our rooftops were parkland, that the area of ground occupied by buildings was, in effect, simply displaced upward. Imagine that the city enacted legislation requiring that the equivalent of 100 percent of the surface area of New York were to be green. A 100 percent requirement would not simply oblige green roofs. It would also demand that compensatory greenery be added to make up for such ungreenable areas as roadways, runways, and other unplantable places. Perhaps the requirement would be satisfied with road narrowings, cantilevered gardens, or green floors in buildings (utilities on the order of the mechanical floors that occur in almost all tall buildings).

  14. The stoop is a space of spectatorship

    Along with being a meeting place, the stoop is a space of spectatorship. A street lined with stoops is a kind of lateral stadium, ideal for viewing the passing parade, whether formal ones like the giant Gay Pride and Halloween Parades (until their route was changed a few years ago) or the more informal quotidian version. Hanging out on the stoop allows the sitter to observe the dance (Jane Jacobs’s ballet) of daily activity, to notice what is out of the ordinary, to provide the kind of public presence that prompts neighborly behavior.

    1. ‚Äč‚ÄčI know the deep night ballet and its seasons best‚Äč‚Äč
  15. The Poop Press Project

    (In the run-up to the law, I myself had undertaken the ‚ÄúPoop Press Project,‚ÄĚ which had entailed fixing a star-shaped cookie mold to the end of a stick to transform the noisome waste into street art, an attempt only intermittently effective.)

  16. Walking is a natural armature for thinking sequentially

    Walking is a natural armature for thinking sequentially. It also has a historic relationship to mental organization that ranges from the Peripatetics, to the philosophers of Kyoto, to the clockwork circuit of Immanuel Kant, to the sublimities of the English Romantics and their passages through nature. It is not simply an occasion for observation but an analytic instrument.

    1. ‚Äč‚ÄčReveries of a Solitary Walker‚Äč‚Äč
  17. The drift

    The Situationists were also practitioners of a special urban-analytic walking style, the d√©rive‚ÄĒthe ‚Äúdrift‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒwhich Debord described as ‚Äúa technique of transient passage through varied ambiences. The d√©rive entails playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects; which completely distinguishes it from the classical notions of the journey and the stroll.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúIn a d√©rive,‚ÄĚ Debord deadpans, ‚Äúone or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there."

    The dérive joins the free association of surrealism, the LSD of hippiedom, and cinematic montage as tactics for overcoming the fixity of received ideas of order and logic.

    By putting progress through the city into a state of constant indeterminacy, it represents a schooled ‚Äústyle‚ÄĚ of being lost.

    1. ‚Äč‚ÄčPsychogeography‚Äč‚Äč
    2. ‚Äč‚ÄčRaindrops leaving an erratic trail‚Äč‚Äč
  18. To disappear in the crowd

    The modern city produces its own style of getting lost, rooted in its special form of alienation. Here, the crowd, while it can be protective, is also a medium for both erasing individuality and homogenizing experience, for making us disappear.

    In one of my more brooding journal entries, I once wrote: "I live in the city so that I can feel alone."

  19. The 1916 Zoning Resolution

    Architecturally, what is striking about the 1916 legislation is that it sought to articulate a logical formula for achieving a public good in the absence of a specific vision of exactly what would actually be produced.

  20. The spatial dimension of democracy

    Since the time of the Greeks, democracy has been understood to have a spatial dimension and so, by extension, an element of scale. Plato measured the polis, the unit of democratic citizenship, at five hundred citizens, an extremely tractable size for a community that seeks to express itself through direct engagement.

  21. Induced demand

    Every attempt to cul-de-sac city streets, to change traffic patterns in favor of pedestrians, or to narrow street ends is met with the same howl of protest from the authorities: this will increase congestion because urban traffic is a zero-sum game. Any reduction in volume in one place in the city will inevitably be accompanied by a rise in traffic somewhere else.

    This claim is fallacious: the true corollary is the opposite. In case after case, a reduction of the space available for vehicular traffic has simply resulted in the reduction of traffic overall.

    1. ‚Äč‚ÄčLike trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt‚Äč‚Äč
  22. Greenfill

    I have for years been engaged in a thought experiment, the product of which is the idea of a program of ‚Äúgreenfill‚ÄĚ for the city streets. The idea is simple: if one lane of every block in the city were removed from the automotive system and returned to the pedestrian realm, an enormous range of urban problems could be solved.

  23. Responsibility for the sidewalk

    It is a bizarre anomaly that we freely spend countless billions on the construction and maintenance of our streets but leave the repair, and cleaning, of our sidewalks‚ÄĒand the crucial shading apparatus they support‚ÄĒto the tender mercies of private landlords who show no strong inclination to take proper responsibility for this vital duty and whose responsibility for but a fragmentary increment of the block creates conditions of uneven repair and character.

  24. The Radiant City

    Le Corbusier‚Äôs advocacy of what he had come to call the ‚ÄúRadiant City‚ÄĚ continued to his death, and in the 1960s he published his most complete vision, drawn with seductive elegance and insanely mesmerizing to the generation of architects teaching in my school days, for whom possession of a Corb drawing or painting was tantamount to owning a relic of the True Cross.

  25. Tower blocks and slabs

    The buildings of Washington Square Village and Silver Towers are museum-quality examples of the two great apartment typologies of modernity: the tower block and the slab. Both illustrate their strengths and disadvantages when introduced into the urban fabric in their pure state.

  26. Genuinely sustainable architecture

    The received version of modern architecture, with its social simplification and technical sophistication, has gotten it exactly backward. Genuinely sustainable architecture must begin with the simplest technical solutions (sunshades, cross ventilation, correct solar orientation) but conduce the most complex social relations (variety before uniformity). Invention will come not simply from the fevered acts of lonely imagination but from the constant reframing of questions raised at the intersection of climate, culture, technology, politics, and taste, by the understanding that architectural meanings are produced, not inherent.

  27. New-urbanist projects

    The overwhelming majority of new-urbanist projects retain the almost purely residential, exclusively middle-class character of suburbia, simply substituting one formal paradigm for another. Instead of curving streets, cul-de-sacs, and half-acre lots, these developments offer grids, tightly spaced houses with front porches, and a town center instead of a shopping center containing the very same shops.

    1. ‚Äč‚ÄčSoft City‚Äč‚Äč
    2. ‚Äč‚ÄčNew Urbanism and Beyond: Designing Cities for the Future‚Äč‚Äč
  28. Touring SoHo

    SoHo has, however, become part of a tourist archipelago where the definition of place falls into a set of increasingly generic categories. The act of touring devolves less on the particulars of geography than on the consumption of a set of prepackaged lifestyles, defined by a fixed array of goods and services. Almost every city in America now boasts a SoHo equivalent.

  29. The question of gentrification

    The question of gentrification is made complex by the fact that the urban qualities it produces‚ÄĒlively street life, profuse commerce, preservation and upgrading of old buildings‚ÄĒare highly desirable, the substrate of urbanity. The problem with gentrification is with its particulars and with its effects.

    Gentrification suppresses reciprocity by its narrowed scripting of formal and social behavior, by turning neighborhoods into Disneylands or Colonial Williamsburgs, where residents become cast members and the rituals of everyday life become spectacle or food for consumption.

  30. Non-architects

    In 1964, the historian Bernard Rudofsky curated a show at MoMA called Architecture Without Architects, celebrating the formal qualities of a range of traditional building practices drawn from around the world.

    Setting aside the endlessly troubled implications of the Western gaze on ‚Äúprimitive‚ÄĚ cultures, the show had the very constructive impacts of encouraging formal diversity at a time when mainstream architecture had grown desperately, myopically monochromatic and of suggesting that ‚Äúnon-architects‚ÄĚ were capable not only of making good judgments about their environments but of actually taking the lead in creating them.

    1. ‚Äč‚ÄčThe Timeless Way of Building‚Äč‚Äč
    2. ‚Äč‚ÄčMost cities were mostly built by improvisation‚Äč‚Äč
    3. ‚Äč‚ÄčArchitecture Without Architects‚Äč‚Äč
  31. Flying a kiwi

    Flying a kiwi fruit from New Zealand to New York produces four times the weight of the kiwi in greenhouse gases; moving a head of lettuce to here from California requires ten times the calories the lettuce yields to the eater.

  32. Ideas for linear cities

    Arturo Soria y Mata, who proposed a linear streetcar suburb for Madrid in 1882 and managed to build something like three miles‚Äô worth of an intended thirty. Likewise, the project by Edgar Chambless for Roadtown, published in 1910, depicted an infinitely long, two-room-wide building atop three levels of underground rail lines for express, local, and freight traffic. In the late 1920s, N. A. Miliutin proposed a Soviet Union‚Äďspanning linear plan that‚ÄĒfollowing Soria y Mata‚Äôs rhetoric‚ÄĒwould have solved the old Marxian chestnut of city/country contradiction at a stroke. Le Corbusier‚Äôs Algiers scheme of 1933‚ÄĒa highway-topped fourteen-story building meant to stretch miles along the Mediterranean and house 180,000 people‚ÄĒwas surely the most immediate precursor of Rudolph‚Äôs ‚ÄúCity Corridor.‚ÄĚ

    1. ‚Äč‚ÄčThe linear city‚Äč‚Äč
  33. Those glowing domes and minarets

    I began to have my doubts about those glowing domes and minarets. Finally, I felt that this modern celebration of history subtracted something: I felt gypped out of the dark.

    Problematic verbiage notwithstanding, I enjoy the concept of feeling like you have a right to freedom from light.

  34. Induced communication

    I remain mystified by what seems like an exponential increase in the need to communicate induced by the availability of a ready new means to do so, just as new highway capacity produces increased traffic. Witness the cabdrivers who talk uninterrupted on the phone as they travel the city, or the truly huge numbers of people who speak on the phone as they walk down the street: the medium has clearly become the message, if the meaning of the message remains somewhat opaque.

    1. ‚Äč‚ÄčThe medium is the message‚Äč‚Äč
    2. ‚Äč‚ÄčLike trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt‚Äč‚Äč
  35. Management and manipulation of fear

    More and more of daily life is governed by the management and manipulation of fear.

    A society can be judged by the risks to which it chooses to respond, the dangers it values, the targets it gives high priority.

  36. If those striped bass need a place to fuck

    The real deathblow to Westway proved to be a lawsuit filed on behalf of the striped-bass population‚ÄĒshepherded through the courts by the activist Marcy Benstock‚ÄĒthat sought to protect their breeding grounds in the pilings beneath the piers that the fill would have eliminated. After this was decided in the federal courts, Mayor Ed Koch, a Westway supporter, reportedly uttered, in frustration, the most memorable line of the affair: ‚ÄúIf those striped bass need a place to fuck, I will build them a motel in Poughkeepsie.‚ÄĚ

  37. High-priced good times

    Once again, a neighborhood dedicated to production has been transformed into one for consumption. As someone who believes that an internal balance between these activities is vital to the health, character, and autonomy of the city, I find that the sight of yet another zone of high-priced good times gives me the willies, even as I tuck into my perfect branzino in the lovely back garden of the delightful Italian restaurant.