Preserving the Alaskan Way Viaduct?!

It has come to my attention that a group called 'Park My Viaduct' is attempting to make the case for saving the Alaskan Way Viaduct and turning it into a park similar to the High Line in NYC. I think Scott Bonjukian summed up a lot of good criticism of this plan in his post 'The Alaskan Way Viaduct Must Come Down'. My additional thoughts are below.


The High Line in NYC is a great public space, but let's not delude ourselves into thinking that the old Alaskan Way Viaduct is presenting a similar opportunity to Seattle. The conditions between the High Line and the Viaduct are vastly different. And although the High Line in NYC is a great success, having a vibrant street life and waterfront connection should be a much higher priority then bending over backwards to retrofit a structurally deficient concrete eyesore.

We have a great opportunity to relink downtown Seattle with its waterfront. Separating them by constructing the viaduct was a great mistake of the last century; let's restore sightlines to reintegrate the waterfront with downtown instead of preserving this barrier. (Side note- have you ever stood in Pioneer Square or Occidental Park and wondered how far you are from the waterfront? Although you're only physically two blocks away it's hard to conceptualize this distance due to the blocked sightlines.)

The condition of the Viaduct speaks for itself: it's falling down. What point is there to spend considerable amounts of money retrofitting and restoring a structure of little historical merit?! Is a monument to Robert Moses and 1950's era automobile culture really something we want to construct and celebrate? The High Line has great historical merit as an industrial rail artery of the 20th-century and serves to tell the history of declining industrialism in our urban centers. The Viaduct does not have this story. Spending money on preserving this would be a waste. Particularly when so many other great opportunities are at stake. (Although I believe your estimates of $20 million/acre for an I-5 LID are somewhat low, I would support this project any day over the viaduct)

Additionally, the High Line was the only right of way opportunity to create a park. The rail trestle passes over numerous private lots (even through buildings), so the park could not have been established if it were not for the above-ground structure. In Seattle the right of way is preserved down to the ground as this space was reserved as a street and surface parking. Because of this, there is a significant amount of surface-level land that has the opportunity to be redeveloped if we are careful. Any Viaduct park would have limited access whereas a surface level park would create a synergistic bond between the waterfront and downtown neighborhoods.

Better projects to aspire to are San Francisco's Embarcadero/Waterfront and Boston's Rose Kennedy Greenway. Both projects are on/near waterfronts both projects involved the removal of 1950's era viaducts, and both projects have been extremely successful.

Is Art and Architecture decorative?

A difference exists in the field between 'the discourse' and the 'ready-made' (for mass consumption). But is decorative art and architecture less valuable then a highly conceptual contemporary work?

Although having a knowledge of the discourse and a solid architecture history education puts me in a position of 'elite', I am starting to see more beauty and value in 'decoration'. Sure we can't all sit in Eames Chairs next to our original Andy Warhol (these two examples not selected coincidentally).

The difficulty with elitism in the dialogue is that it is inaccessible to the vast majority of society. This is where the value of decoration comes in. Sure Tim & Sally don't know de Kooning or Le Corbusier (They might barely be able to remember the name Picasso or FL Wright for that matter).

The value in decoration is that it is expressive, it is transformative, it is accessible, and it is in some form art.

Certainly our society has become wrapped up into a tornado about 'authenticity', and certainly this is a polemic problem that remains in the discourse. We are hyper concerned about 'faux' and reproductions because they feel false and we assume that this devalues original quality work.

Now I'm not saying that I too don't sometimes feel a small bit nauseous around that IKEA Audrey Hepburn reproduction.

However, if every piece of art that is purchased, collected, and displayed has a requirement of some superficial degree of 'original authenticity', then elitism has trickled down to have a dangerous affect on approachable art.

One of my favorite stories of art collecting is the 50x50 by the Vogels.

I think there is a space in the field where decoration can live nicely opposite the discourse. 

Though I've primarily discussed anecdotes about the art discourse, I think that this debate translates directly into the architecture discourse where it is difficult to define the role and boundary of an architect, an interior designer (decorator), etc etc. in the architecture community we constantly bash periodicals 'for the masses' such as Architecture Digest. And while I personally don't find much value from this area of the spectrum, it isn't to say that it doesn't have any value.

Take for example our contemporary ticky-tacky suburban developments chalk full of McMansions. Although many an architect would sneer and roll their eyes at everything that seems anti-Ruskinian about contemporary suburban development (do people even know what a Villa or a Chateaux is?)

The Trickle Down...

Does this cheapen or decrease the originality value of things? No! I would argue that in the contemporary world, we understand that value difference between an original, a reproduction, a fake, and any sequence or variation. Those who have a level of education or discernment to know always will. Chateaus in the French Countryside are still ridiculously expensive even though that stucco McMansion down the street is being marketed by the realtor as a Chateaux.

Let the copies copy.


Cars vs. Pedestrians

Why can't we all just get along. 

It's not a big secret that the design of our urban built environment has been built in a manner that puts cars and pedestrians in conflict. What is shocking is how long we have been aware of this antagonistic relationship and how yet we still continue to do very little about it. Although design cannot fix all of the conflicts that exist between pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles, there are techniques and behaviors that can and should be utilized to help urban life move more fluidly. 

Pet Peeves


I have observed the phenomenon of cars parked in driveways in San Francisco with such high frequency that it appears to be a significant problem to the walkability of streets. Now I understand that sometimes as a driver, you need to quickly stop by to pick something up, drop something off, etc etc, and that in neighborhoods with atrocious parking that the only feasible alternative can be to temporarily stop in a driveway. Ultimately, this ends up becoming just another obstacle (sometimes significant) for pedestrians to move around.

The issue that I have with this behavior (besides the fact that it promotes an auto-centric culture of doom) is that first the automobiles pull all the way into the driveway to get 'off the street' when in reality it would be more appropriate for the driver to pull onto the sidewalk only as far as needed to be out of operating traffic lanes (take advantage of the width of that parking lane!). Of course it's a dangerous game since drivers may end up parking in the bike lane which is also a huge encumbrance.

Although it does require drivers parking their cars to extoll an additional few steps that their car was unable to do for them, the amount of energy saved on all parts is immense (that little bit of gas is still more then the amount of calories you burn). 

Back to Reality...

Before I get too carried away on yet another anti-vehicular rant, I should reiterate that it is important in the urban realm for all traffic users to try their best to responsibly share space. A large part of our urban problems could be fixed by design, though the easier and quicker way to provide some relief is to change behavior.


San Francisco Scale

(...from a Bostonian's perspective)

While exploring the urban landscape of San Francisco this summer, one thought that I've had that has really intrigued me is the sense of urban scale that exists in San Francisco and 'urban morphologically' speaking gives San Francisco a very unique 'Street DNA'. This today was interestingly pronounced on my varied daily journey between several different SF neighborhoods and respective travel.

My neighborhood itinerary for today's agenda was as follows: 

  • Hayes Valley (start: sisters apartment)
  • walk to Market (for MUNI) 
  • get off at Union Square
  • walk to REVIT class in southern SOMA
  • Walk from class back via Yerba Buena garden & Academy of Art
  • Walk to Trans America building in the financial District
  • Take the Cable Car up California St. towards Nob Hill (passing China Town)
  • Get off Cable Car and walk from Nob to Russian Hill (end: home) 

While this is also a unique list of transit options, what really stood out during this experience was the different neighborhood scales.



The Grid

San Francisco is overwhelmingly (99%) a grid system which begins to afford a certain nature of street geometries. While there are certain neighborhoods that break this rule (generally from a particular era of planning), I would classify the overwhelming majority of San Francisco (or the places that people typically go and function in a highly urban sense) as Grid.

Even Market Street, the street that breaks the grid, has a certain logic to it that enhances the grid (connections between skewed SOMA and Financial District line up for clean connections with block length adjusted correspondingly). In many cities, diagonal streets similar to Market would leave an overwhelming amount of unresolved geometric discrepancies that would remain rough.

Here comes to Automobile...

What runs as a common element throughout all of the neighborhoods of SF is the fundamental scale of the personal automobile. Although some of SF's most densest neighborhoods remind me a lot of the density of Boston, the largest difference is that they are still at a scale that corresponds to the automobile. Cities like Boston on the other hand have extremely dense neighborhoods that were retrofitted for the automobile and therefore sacrifice pedestrian space to enable unencumbered vehicular traffic with little to no sidewalk space. San Francisco's 'dense' financial district has no such problem accommodating appropriate amounts of vehicular traffic while still having ample sidewalk space for pedestrians. Greatly proportioned street sections accommodate 4-5 lanes of traffic (and parking), 10-12 ft. sidewalks accommodate peak pedestrian flows, and a decently sized landscape buffer mitigates the two.

Even Chinatown which follows the automobile rule the least and accommodates very little automobile traffic during the day obey's the grid and keeps to an auto-centric proportion. (Chinatown has some of the most pedestrian trafficked street's in all of San Francisco. Only rivaled by Powell between Market & Union Square, and Castro St. on weekend nights).

Interestingly enough, these 'well proportioned streets' do create somewhat of an urban paradox that might not be entirely positive for vibrant street life. Although the ample amount of space allows traffic to remain segregated and separate which somewhat leads to SF's strong auto-centric driving culture whereas in cities like Boston where Pedestrian and vehicular space must be shared. Shared space between modalities requires all users to work together to achieve the common goals of individual transit. In this sense, modality users must respond to traffic appropriately: cars slow down (USUALLY ) while pedestrians move out of the way of queued cars (when convenient).

 ***Caveat: I admittedly am biased towards the pedestrian, and have very limited automobile experience in this neighborhood. My few trips in a car in SF's financial district did seem incredibly frustrating as lights aren't typically timed for automobiles and any turn requires a significant wait to allow pedestrian crossings (this is universally common in all urban central business districts).



This is where bikes come in...

<to be developed>

Overall Density

Overall, I find it fascinating that although streets in San Francisco tend to be of automobile scale while Boston's are completely oblivious to automobile scale while cramming traffic in to narrow street's, the overall density of SF's financial district still feels strangely similar to the scale of Boston's financial district (I'm curious to see if there is a similar FAR in these two instances).

SOMA tends to related very strongly with Boston's waterfront (or 'Innovation District')  or the new development of the Fenway neighborhood.



The Duck vs Decorated Shed

My brother-in-law sent a picture on his way to the beach in Ipswitch, MA. On his journey, he discovered the famous Clam Box and asked if I had any architectural interpretation. Oh boy did I have some insight as to the debate within the architectural discourse that he had stumbled upon and my interpretation of how it applied to The Clam Box.

The Clam Box happens to be somewhat of an interesting cross-over hybrid in the Duck vs Decorated Shed debate of Robert Venturi outlined in Learning from Las Vegas. In post-modernism, Venturi theorized that contemporary buildings tend to fall into the category of either being object-like 'the Duck' and therefore autodidactic of it's form and symbol, verses 'the Decorated Shed' which uses decoration and/or signs to convey it's symbolic meaning.

The Clam Box in itself is a simple clapboard structure that has angled parapets (I feel sorry for whoever had to draft those details but that's another story) . The structure is predominantly a meta-reference to the take-out boxes that the clams & other seafood fare are served in (one point for Duck). However, the way in which the simple structure is turned into an object building is through ornamentation of a unique parapet, signifying a decorated shed. Although the building is roughly the proportions of a box, the parapet somewhat abstracts the folded lids in dimension.

Overall, it is my belief that The Clam Box is a decorated shed disguised as a duck. 

The Duck vs The Decorated Shed image from 'Learning from Las Vegas'

The Duck vs The Decorated Shed image from 'Learning from Las Vegas'

The Clam Box of Ipswitch, MA; an interesting hybrid of the Duck vs the Decorated Shed debate.

The Clam Box of Ipswitch, MA; an interesting hybrid of the Duck vs the Decorated Shed debate.