Design Observer

About
Books
Job Board
Newsletters
Archive
Contact



Observatory

About
Resources
Submissions
Contact


Featured Writers

Michael Bierut
William Drenttel
John Foster
Jessica Helfand
Alexandra Lange
Mark Lamster
Paul Polak
Rick Poynor
John Thackara
Rob Walker


Departments

Advertisement
Audio
Books
Collections
Dear Bonnie
Dialogues
Essays
Events
Foster Column
From Our Archive
Gallery
Interviews
Miscellaneous
New Ideas
Opinions
Partner News
Photos
Poetry
Primary Sources
Projects
Report
Reviews
Slideshows
The Academy
Today Column
Unusual Suspects
Video


Topics

Advertising
Architecture
Art
Books
Branding
Business
Cities / Places
Community
Craft
Culture
Design History
Design Practice
Development
Disaster Relief
Ecology
Economy
Education
Energy
Environment
Fashion
Film / Video
Food/Agriculture
Geography
Global / Local
Graphic Design
Health / Safety
History
Housing
Ideas
Illustration
India
Industry
Info Design
Infrastructure
Interaction Design
Internet / Blogs
Journalism
Landscape
Literature
Magazines
Media
Museums
Music
Nature
Obituary
Other
Peace
Philanthropy
Photography
Planning
Poetry
Politics / Policy
Popular Culture
Poverty
Preservation
Product Design
Public / Private
Public Art
Religion
Reputations
Science
Shelter
Social Enterprise
Sports
Sustainability
Technology
Theory/Criticism
Transportation
TV / Radio
Typography
Urbanism
Water


Comments Posted 03.10.12 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Alexandra Lange

City of Shoes: Is Urbanism Scalable?



From Learning from Las Vegas.

For my class this week I assigned Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's "A Significance for A&P Parking Lots or Learning from Las Vegas," a 1968 chapter that sets out their Las Vegas project in bite-size form. In re-reading it, I remembered the description of the typical exterior Vegas form (road, sign, parking lot, building), but not their pointed analysis of the casino interior, or their distaste for the single, bewitching idea modernists take from the past: the piazza. In Vegas, to their joy, unnamed casino architects have managed to make the piazza their own in the form of the patio.
The gambling room is always very dark; the patio, always very bright. But both are enclosed: the former has no windows, the latter is open only to the sky. The combination of darkness and enclosure of the gambling room and its subspaces makes for privacy, protection, concentration, and control. The intricate maze under the low ceiling never connects with outside light or outside space. This disorients the occupant in space and time. He loses track of where he is and when it is. Time is limitless because the light of noon and midnight are exactly the same.
I was reminded of this passage because I've recently been reading about Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's project to remake downtown Las Vegas. (Terrific New Yorker profile of Zappos and the cult of Hsieh here.) Not the Strip, not the suburbs, downtown Vegas suffered from an exodus of population and money both before and after the boom, but has also spawned a nascent alternastrip in the Fremont East District. When he found out the city's former City Hall, two blocks from Fremont, was available, Hsieh decided to lease it and make it Zappos new headquarters, while also seeding the transformation of the city around it via the $350 million Downtown Project. I've been enthralled by this idea since I first heard of it: spending money on more than your own employees welfare? Doubling-down on existing architecture and infrastructure? Density? Buses? All good, especially in contrast to the prevailing architecture of the western tech campus. Could Vegas come out of the casinos and into the light?


Former Las Vegas City Hall, future Zappos headquarters.

In a long interview last week with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Hsieh explained his reasoning for taking on the city more fully, and explicitly made the anti-corporate campus point.
HSIEH. We thought about campuses like Nike, Google, Apple. But then, as we started thinking about it more, we realized that those campuses were great but they really didn't contribute to or integrate with the community around them. It just made a lot more sense instead of just focusing on ourselves to focus on the community, the ecosystem, the environment. If we really invest in the ecosystem, it becomes this positive feedback loop. Imagine if every bar, restaurant and coffee shop was like "Cheers," you are going to run into someone you know. The goal is to create everything you need to live, work and play within walking distance and to make downtown Vegas the most community focused large city in the world.
Having spent a week at Facebook, Google, Apple in January for a forthcoming essay on what I am calling "The Dot-Com City," I am in radical sympathy with Hsieh's idea. The difference between the urbanish amenities offered on the campuses, and the paucity of community space around them was striking. All the more so because all of those companies, like Zappos (though each CEO makes it sound like he invented the idea), place a premium on serendipitous encounters. As Leigh Gallagher wrote in Fortune:
Indeed, the motivation for Hsieh's big bet comes from his long-held philosophy that serendipitous interactions, or what he likes to call spontaneous "collisions" between people, are what spark ideas and what facilitate relationships that lead to stronger ties -- and stronger ties lead to more ideas. It's why he's poured such effort into building Zappos' into a place where "culture magicians" work their magic and where streamers, balloons and toy figurines seem to spill out of every cubicle.

Current downtown success story, Fremont East.

And yet, reading these generally adulatory profiles, I can't help but wonder, as Carrie Bradshaw might say, what the urban equivalent of balloons and toy figurines might be. It gives me pause that, as Gallagher also reports, those leading the Downtown Project have no planning experience and their principal guru to date is economist Edward Glaeser, of Triumph of the City taller-denser-richer ubiquity. They know they don't know anything, and they don't care, because (another techy cliche) that means they can "ask the dumb questions." The brainstorming wall at Hsieh's downtown apartment (brainstorming = yet another dot-com innovation favorite, recently debunked) "has a collection of colored post-it notes listing the ingredients that they think go into the perfect neighborhood ("jazz fest," "beer garden," "wine bar/wine and cheese store", "dog park," "hybrid e-school (eg Khan Academy)," "Yoga!" And there was something about Burning Man.

At the risk of becoming another kind of cliche, the nay-saying, blinkered, expertise-loving type, I must point out: many of these urban ideas seem a lot like figurines: cute, emblematic, but ultimately beside the point. I'm surprised all those business reporters, and the local paper, aren't asking for more specifics. What about grocery store, hardware store, famers market, daycare? (OK, in the Inc. profile, there's a farmers market Post-It.) Yes, investing in density and walkability is a good thing. Yes, unsiloing a successful dot-com enterprise is a good thing. But can you really scale a company into a city, and not make it a company town? Is it only bureaucracy that makes running a city difficult? Which public does Hsieh really want to hang out with at that "Cheers" beer garden? On that point he seems rather vague. Again, from the Review-Journal:

Q. Are the success of the Downtown Project and Zappos intertwined? Are they the same thing?

HSIEH. They are definitely intertwined. The more neighborhood-y, community things for Zappos employees to enjoy, the stronger our culture will be and the more our employees will learn through serendipitous collisions with not just each other but other people in the community.

All of the Downtown Project's opening moves have been to make that community consist of what sound to me demographically like former, current or future Zappos employees. They've leased 50 apartments in an existing luxury high-rise (that's where Hsieh lives) and offered them to Zappos employees and visitors. The first business in place is a co-working space for other, smaller start-ups. Hsieh has made a deal with Teach for America to bring 1000 employees and alumni to live and teach in the area.

And yet, when the Review-Journal asked him to comment on the current statewide referendum on spending more taxes on education, Hsieh refused to comment, instead invoking learning outside the classroom and outside your industry. His approach to city planning sounds an awful lot like Teach for America's approach to teaching: young blood and education trumping expertise and process? I'm not sure what side I'm on in the education fight, but Diane Ravitch's recent piece in the New York Review of Books raises important questions about accountability for Teach for America. Who is going to be the watchdog for Hsieh? And shouldn't he, at least, have an opinion about education if it's a button on his website? I don't hear much about the final pillar of neo-Jacobsian urbanism, diversity.


Jane's Carousel in Brooklyn (via automanual24.com)

His vision (not currently accompanied on the Downtown Project website by any visuals) reminds me in outline of Dumbo, here in Brooklyn, which was a decaying former industrial neighborhood and is a slightly cheaper version of Tribeca, but went through almost no transition period in between. Thanks to some strategic early rent reductions by major owner David Walentas, the neighborhood has a grocery store, but walking from the vintage carousel (restored by Walentas's wife Jane Walentas, and housed in a picture-perfect Jean Nouvel-designed pavilion) what one mostly sees is kid boutiques and cupcake parlors, Almondine and Powerhouse Books and West Elm. There's no fiber. And no schools. Yet.

It would obviously be ironic if modern architecture and the piazza lovers gained the upper hand in Las Vegas, and turned it into the walkable Italian village it never was. There's nothing wrong with more life downtown, even if it is aimed at the young, well-off and childless. But putting so much urban power in the hands of an amateur, letting him work out the kinks with his millions does seem like a dangerous game. What if Hsieh loses interest and moves back to the 'burbs when he finds cities aren't scalable? He and Zappos are probably portable; Las Vegas isn't.
|
Share This Story

Comments

Design Observer encourages comments to be short and to the point; as a general rule, they should not run longer than the original post. Comments should show a courteous regard for the presence of other voices in the discussion. We reserve the right to edit or delete comments that do not adhere to this standard.
Read Complete Comments Policy >>


Name             

Email address 




Please type the text shown in the graphic.


|
Share This Story



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic, and author of Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012). Her work has appeared in The Architect's Newspaper, Architectural Record, Dwell, Metropolis, Print, New York Magazine and The New York Times.
More Bio >>

DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









BOOKS BY Alexandra Lange

Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities
Princeton Architectural Press, 2012

Design Research
Chronicle Books, 2010

More books by contributors >>

RELATED POSTS


Lucia Eames, 1930-2014
An appreciation of Lucia Eames (1930-2014).

The Astrodome and the Challenges of Preservation
The Astrodome and the future of preservation.

Not Afraid of Noise: Mexico City Stories
A photographic tour of Mexico City, house by house, wall by wall.

Genzken and the City
A review of Isa Genzken's current retrospective on view at the MOMA.

Premature Demolition
The Folk Art Museum, David Adjaye's market hall, and the first addition to the Morgan Library. If three makes a trend, then premature demolition qualifies.