Archive for February, 2011

Skyscrapers ‘saving the city’?

The recent Atlantic Magazine showcases articles that suggest skyscrapers to be the salvation of the city. At the beginning of the 21st century, a good century after the construction of the first skyscrapers in various cities in the United States, this seems a curiously belated bit of news, — after all, wasn’t that what did ‘save’ the cities, allowing their densities in terms of people per unit of surface area to increase so prodigiously? Well. There are some new skyscrapers to report upon – newsworthy, because of their sheer size and height, so we’ll let that one go. But the part about ‘saving the city’ — well, that is sticking in my craw, and warrants some curmudgeonly critical comment. Because the role of sky scrapers in the well-being of cities has been studded with question marks for quite a while.

It was the dismal winter of 1967 when I played the role of hopeful immigrant to the US, stepping ashore in a foot or more of snow and traipsing up some deserted Brooklyn industrial areas to find the nearest subway entrance — the only means of public transportation that was still working reliably after the big blizzard that had just struck the city, killing about a dozen of its citizens in a directly attributable manner. I have to qualify that one. Because emerging out of the comfy subway into the cold air at the corner of 34th and Broadway, looking down 34th Street that was totally deserted due to the snow, I was nevertheless assaulted by an incredible cityesque noise. Turning around, I realized that Broadway behind me had been cleared, and anything driving in New York city that fateful February 8th was driving up and down Broadway, honking horns crazily. I enjoyed the unique possibility of being able to walk down the middle of 34th towards Sloan House (my cheap immigrant’s destination) with my two bags of earthly possessions, as the only user of that street that afternoon. At Sloan House, I was of course gobbled up by the very contraptions that I had come to the States to denounce as a Thing of the Past, a mistake, indeed a Dead End. For in my meager baggage I carried some drawings and pamphlets that proposed a very different vision of what cities of the future might, should be like.

I had earned my diploma of engineering in architecture at the stolid Technical University of Munich some years earlier, with some misgivings that prevented me from joining my friends in the boisterous post-war building frenzy of West Germany, and instead going to work in the office of a visionary fellow who was a member of a group led loosely (intellectually) by Yona Friedman called GEAM — ‘Groupe d’Étude d’Architecture Mobile’. Friedman had proposed large pilot-supported structures of space frames spanning over existing cities, its individual spaces filled in according to changing needs by users. In Schulze-Fielitz’ office, we had studied the space frames needed for such projects (I found out, for example that Friedman’s basic structural unit would never work structurally, something he never admitted), and we had a lot of fun entering competitions with visionary schemes of space frames — a proposal for the Bochum University, for example, a joint (with Friedman) proposal for a bridge across the Channel; an entry for the German Pavilion for the Montreal ’67 Expo. One insight that emerged from all this was that both the skyscraper solution (vertical extension of city space) as well as the Friedman ‘horizontal’ space frame city above existing ones suffered from the same problem that their transportation systems were essentially ‘dead ends’: changing from the horizontal street at ground level (which, for all its shortcomings, offered considerable flexibility in accommodating different modes of transportation from pedestrian to vehicular) into a vertical elevator system that ended at the (usually inaccessible to the public because reserved for the penthouse owner of the place..) top: dead end, as far as the public life of the city was concerned.

Our conclusion was the ‘diagonal city’. It would consist of a network of inverted (truncated) pyramids that on the outside would contain apartments with garden terraces (looking down on an area of public green space on the ground) and covering, entirely or partially, a common city space on the other side. It would be served by a three-dimensionally continuous transportation network in the corners of the pyramids:from any point in the structure, one could go to any other point by three different routes: the horizontal grid flanking the horizontal road grid on the ground; the ‘diagonal’ (escalator) network in the corners of the pyramids; the continuous horizontal pedestrian grid at the top of the interconnected inverted pyramids (perhaps better called ‘funnels’) and any vertical elevators and horizontal passages at levels in-between. I had calculated achievable densities for such schemes, sketched details and plan solutions, pictures of models of such cities in my portfolio. (I still have some of those pictures…)

I had realized that architecture school had not taught me everything I’d need to even begin to get involved in the realization of such schemes. So I had decided to go to the U.S. — to work and go to graduate school (to pick up the needed tools, I thought would be mainly methodological) because I had somehow gotten the impression that not only were there people — architects, even — who were working along such lines, but also potential clients who might be interested in these visions; the diagonal city, to my mind, had much more to offer to the individual dweller (residential space close to urban work and civic space, with terraces for outdoor activity and even modest gardening); high density; the possibility of even higher densities at the intersection of the pyramids (accommodating conventional high-rise office buildings if such were really needed); highly efficient public transportation systems in three dimensions; their efficiency guaranteed, like that of the structural systems and infrastructure, by the necessity of compatibility and therefore large-scale production and dimensional coordination; and the possibility of continual adaptation to changing needs by the separation of structure and infill, so that the latter could be changed out as needed.

It turned out that I has seriously mis-estimated the conditions in the U.S. (and everywhere else, for that matter). For one, the possibility / probability of getting every owner of land to agree to the degree of cooperation needed for such schemes turned out to be nil. Of course, the massive public resources needed to ‘provide’ or even help finance the common, coordinated infrastructure (that in our schemes would include not only utilities but even structural support) was not feasible given the rules governing public versus private construction.

But the real problem, it turned out, was a quite different one, — as I learned in the graduate studies where I was expecting to pick up the wherewithal to implement such visions): what the owners of skyscrapers really wanted was a phallic symbol. Each and every time. It just had to be TALLER than everything else around. And of course, something like either Friedman’s ideas nor the diagonal city schemes would never be able to deliver that.

We may have to accept this as one of the realities of the world, like gravity. But we don’t have to rationalize it as something that ‘saves’ the city: there are both cost, functional, and other civic interaction considerations (I have written about) that puts big question marks on to that proposition. So do we have to wait for women to take over the boardrooms of corporations to introduce some different common sense criteria about what might save cities? Or can we discuss that as a separate issue from that of satisfying the strange quirks of the egos of male CEO’s?

A Planning Perspective on Ethics and Morality

(These comments were triggered by Ronald Dworkin’s article in the New York Review of Books of January 2011 on ‘What Is a Good Life?’ and its moral and ethical implications. They try to put my insights on the theory of design and planning into a meaningful relation to morality and ethics.)

We find ourselves in the world, dealing with our needs , desires, and reality’s challenges to meeting those. Whether we call all that ‘pursuit of happiness’ or ‘problem-solving’, or anything else, a common feature is that we make plans —
plans to act in those pursuits.

Our plans can be made as individuals — ‘my plan’, or as groups of people. Either way — as soon as ‘my plan’ begins to relate to and affect others’ plans: ‘your plan’, the effort becomes ‘our plan’.

The natural expectation for any plan is that implementing it will result in a situation that is ‘better’ (1) than if it were not implemented.

This expectation must be extended to any participant in the effort; any person affected by the plans: a ‘good’ plan is one that is perceived to be ‘better’ or at least not worse, for all affected.

Plans whose acceptance is achieved by coercion (2) are not ‘better’ in this understanding.

The determination of what constitutes a ‘good’ plan must be sought and achieved by means of communication. This mostly takes the form of ‘argument’ understood as the common exploration of the ‘pros and cons’ — the advantages and disadvantages — of a proposed plan.

The resulting expectation is therefore that the decision about acceptance, or rejection or modification of the plan (towards a greater chance of acceptance) should be based on the ‘merit of the arguments’.

This raises the question of how such arguments should be evaluated: how their ‘merit’ ought to be established, so as to plausibly support the decision.

The tradition on argument assessment as studied in the past by the disciplines of logic, rhetoric, or critical thinking has not treated the evaluation of planning arguments adequately. The reason for this is the focus of analysis on individual arguments (3) — not the entire array of pros and cons –, on the ‘validity’ of argument patterns, and on the ‘truth’ of argument premises and conclusions (4).

The lessons from traditional logic argument analysis do apply only to the validation / verification of some of the premises in planning arguments:

The prototypical planning argument can be rephrased as follows (5):
Proposal x ought to be accepted (conclusion, a deontic claim)
(It is a fact that) x has a relationship REL to some effect y
(factual-instrumental premise, e.g. causal)
y is desirable (ought to be aimed for) (deontic premise) (6).

The merit of such arguments rests — in the subjective assessment of individual participants — on the following aspects:

– the plausibility (7) of each of the premise claims,
– the plausibility of the entire argument pattern.

The plausibility of an individual argument of this type will be a function of the plausibility values of the premises and the argument pattern.
Furthermore, the ‘weight’ of an individual argument in the entire set of pros and cons raised about a proposed plan must be seen in relation to all the other arguments: specifically, it will depend on its own degree of assessed plausibility and the significance or weight of relative importance of the deontic to which it refers, among all the deontic concerns of the entire argument set.

The question of how the arguments together support or don’t support the ‘conclusion’ to accept or reject the proposed plan is a separate issue, discussed for example in Mann (2010).

The question of morality and ethics arises with respect to the issue of necessary assumptions and agreements for a constructive planning discourse.

In addition to explicit and agreed-upon basic agreements (8), there are unspoken but important assumptions such as the following:

– The expectation that my arguments are given due consideration rests on the assumption that the information I present in them is a true (or plausible) representation of my actual beliefs — that I don’t misrepresent or distort what I believe to be the truth or desirable goals. In other words, it rests on the assumptions that I am seen as trustworthy by other participants. If not, I can’t expect them to pay attention to my arguments. This expectation may be mutually ‘granted’ up front as a good faith assumption. But it must be sustained by consistent performance, and will be damaged, sometimes irreparably, by revelation of violations in the form of deliberate misrepresentation, distortion, untruthful claims, or deliberate and intentional omission or withholding of critical information.

It is easily seen that this is the equivalent of the moral injunction ‘thou shalt not lie’; the difference is not only that is is not couched in ‘shalt not’ terms but in terms of a positive effort of truthful, honest, constructive sharing of information. In this sense, the agreement to refrain from the use of force or threat of force is the equivalent to the commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’ — but now phrased in the positive terms of seeking a commonly acceptable, ‘good’ plan: a plan including the killing of a participant who does not see it as all hat beneficial is not living up to the expectation of ‘good’ for all concerned.

Similarly, the expectation of ‘giving due consideration’ to all arguments put forward — even those dealing with aspects of the plan that are mainly or exclusively beneficial or detrimental to other participants — implies some degree of empathy, compassion, desire to care for others besides oneself; mirrored by the expectation that other participants harbor at least some similar feelings about others’ concerns even if they don’t affect themselves that much. Arguably, these are considerations that can be called moral, with the difference that they are not postulated as ‘categorical’ or imposed by some earthly or supernatural authority, to be adhered to on penalty of displeasing that authority (and incurring penalties here or in the hereafter) but simply as conditions for making reasonable plans with others in the here and now.

It is interesting, in this connection, to examine some of the deontic concerns that play a role of planning discussions — even though one might claim that these are not always, even not even as a rule, made explicit. The argument that implementation of ‘plan x’ will establish or strengthen the image of the implementers of the plan. (9) Here, ‘image’ refers to something like ‘who we are’, or ‘who we would like to be’ (or become). Some of these are quite general — and therefore easy to be included in general moral canon: fairness — in considering others, indeed everyone’s concerns equitably in evaluating the merit of arguments; compassion in considering the suffering of others; consistency in one’s adherence and observation of principles and guidelines — an element of predictability (and hence trustworthiness).

But there are other aspects of image that play a role in making plan decisions — sometimes alluded to in comments such as ‘that’s just not me’ or ‘that who I am’: we do all, some more than others, wish to ‘make a difference’ in the world of our existence. That includes not only to leave artifacts, memories of memorable acts, behind, but precisely not be just like everybody else, like all that came before. Again, the image concepts guiding such decisions can be standard societal roles: the warrior, the healer, the ruler, the humble servant, the wise man and teacher (guru). Sometimes, people or entire societies get hung up in trying to live up to images established in earlier times; the fascination with heroic figures of historic, even mythical periods has repeatedly gripped entire nations. But there is always a quest, hidden or explicit, for new, unheard-of images. What are the criteria that govern such ideas? Well, there is the ‘new’ — and in architecture, it sometimes seems to be the only criterion for making a difference. The innovative, here in the sense of new ways of dealing with old and current problems, plays are; being ‘creative’ is very much on people’s minds these days, it seems. These sometimes require courage to pursue, given traditional attitudes and constraints — and so courage is very much a part of image quest; that must be demonstrated in acts of standing up against resistance and reaction — it can be combined and manifested with the heroic into the tragic (suffering, ultimately defeated but for a worthy cause) hero. What about ‘appealing’? Is beauty an aspect of image to which people might aspire? Appeal these days often seems debased to ‘sex appeal’ — and physical appearance, to which considerable amounts of money is devoted; but sometimes ending up as travesties or even caricatures of more coherent concepts of beauty, of which integrity and genuineness are essential ingredients.

The point of enumerating (by no means exhaustively) such examples is that each such image will carry its own requirements for one’s corresponding conduct: ‘according to the image’. Internal coherence and consistency are important for each such image — but the specific criteria do not necessarily have to match those of other images. We might respect and appreciate the ethics of the warrior — as one arguably quite coherent design of who we might be — even if we are personally pursuing the virtues of the healer, the builder, the artist, or the teacher. And the question is: what are the precepts guiding our dealing with all these different image pursuits when our concerns begin to get in each others’ way?

These considerations are seen as a different perspective, as the heading implies, of ethics and morality. They do not seek to replace or deny the validity of theories that try to offer more universal, timeless, general basis for human morality and ethics. But they might be of some significance and perhaps help for some who have trouble accepting specific religious or political theory authorities as the arbiters and foundations for human rules of behavior .

1) ‘Better’: understood as an improvement of a current situation perceived as not sufficiently satisfactory, or as the prevention of a problem that would have resulted in a worse situation.
2) Coercion must be understood as any form of application of force (violence) as well as the introduction or threat of introduction of disagreeable conditions to participants who do not (yet) consider the plan acceptable. Economic constraints, psychological pressure, social pressure, all fall into this category. Their common denominator is that the features introduced into the discussion (‘An offer you can’t refuse’) are not features or qualities of the plan itself but of extraneous circumstances designed to extort acceptance from a less powerful participant. It is a question whether misrepresentation, omission of pertinent information, or distortion of true facts should be seen as forms of coercion; but they certainly are assumed to be equally inadmissible.
3) The discussion of argument assessment in logic is exclusively focused on single arguments, understood as a sequence of claims (premises — usually only two or three premises) that are listed in support of the truth or falsity of a conclusion.
4) The concept of validity of an argument – in traditional logic, especially formal logic, is restricted to arguments involving factual claims, and an argument is understood as being ‘valid’ if there is no way the conclusion can be false if all the premises are true. There have been various attempts to extend this view of validity to arguments involving deontic or ‘ought’ claims (modal logic, deontic logic) but these have all approached the task by a kind of ‘begging the question’ tactic — that of positing claims such as ‘permitted or ‘forbidden’ as ‘true’ and then basis for ought -conclusions following from them, but none of these approaches adequately deal with the nature of desirable or undesirable advantages or disadvantages of plans.
5) The pattern presented here has multiple variation forms derived from various combinations of assertion or negation of the premises, and of the relationship type claimed — in the factual-instrumental premise — to hold between the proposed plan (or plan detail) and the consequence claimed to be desirable or undesirable in the deontic (ought-) premise.
6) Expressed in formal notation, with ‘D’ standing for ‘deontic’, ‘F’ for ‘Fact-claim), and ‘FI’ for ‘factual-instrumental claim’, and ‘REL’ for one of the various relationship claims:
FI( x REL y)
The argument is sometimes extend (qualified) to include assertions about certain conditions under which the relationship REL holds; the pattern then looks like this:
FI (x REL y given c)
and (D(y).

7) While formal logic aims at establishing the ‘truth’ of premises as the condition for the truth of a conclusion, the predicates ‘true’ or ‘false’ apply only to the factual and factual-instrumental premises, not to the deontic claim. This is in contrast to some colloquial usage of referring e.g. to ‘moral truths’; since a desirable aim of a plan is discussed precisely because it is NOT yet true (though it may be true that it is desired by the proponent of an argument). Furthermore, even claims about hypotheses such as that x will cause y are not universally accepted as true, science has long adopted the custom of describing such claims with the ‘probability’ predicate, which also does not fit the deontic premise well. The suggestion is therefore to use the term ‘plausible’ and ‘plausibility’ as expressed on some agreed-upon scale for all claims as well as for the question of the entire argument pattern and its fit or applicability to the case at hand.

8) Basic necessary conditions for constructive planning discourse include such agreement as these: to talk become making a decision, to abstain from the use of foe or threats of coercion, to give each party to the discussion a chance to be heard, to listen to the arguments and to give them due consideration, and to abide by certain decision rules — to be agreed upon — such as the outcome of a vote, or the decision by a referee, in case no consensus or clear decision results from the vote. etc.

9) ‘Image’ here refers to a coherent concept of a societal role or life style; in plans for a building, for example, the building may through its forms and details convey
such societal roles (ref. Mann …. ). In social relations, images may refer to character, skills orientation: the ‘warrior’; the ‘healer’, the ‘ruler’, the ‘friend’.

Mann, T. : ‘The structure and evaluation of planning arguments’ in Informal Logic, Dec. 2010.
— “Programming for Innovation: The Case of the Planning for Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence” , EDRA (Environmental Design Research Association) Meeting, Black Mountain, 1989. DESIGN METHODS AND THEORIES, Vol 24, No. 3, 1990.
— “Images of Government: A Comparative Analysis of Government Buildings in Renaissance Florence.” 1993. Presentation at EDRA (Environmental Design Research Association) Boston, 1995.
“Notes On the Value of Buildings” PROCEEDINGS, 28th Annual Conference of the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) Montreal 1997;
“User Survey on Image Preferences for a School of Architecture” 30th Annual Conference of the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) Orlando, FL 1999.