Tag Archives: Architecture

Discovering New Opportunities for Urban Design in American Cities

“What a city has to say must find expression in its architecture.” Walter Wallmann, Lord Mayor of Frankfurt/Main

Here in the U.S., we tend to think of our built environment –- our cities and towns — as mostly finished. Sure, we might tear down a few old buildings or add a few new subdivisions around the margins but, in general, the urban fabric is completely “baked” and there are no more opportunities for growth or expansion. This attitude is particularly true when it comes to urban design, which attracts little attention from the average citizen and perhaps even less from the average politician. This is too bad because I think the best days of American architecture and urban planning are ahead of us.

In many ways our country is actually still in pioneering mode. Most of our buildings are strictly functional, made of simple materials and designed to last the length of the loan used to pay for their construction. We build fast and haphazardly. The foundations we dig rarely sit on anything other than virgin soil. We pave over what is essentially prime agricultural land. Our buildings are often the first structures on a particular site in the entire history of mankind. Contrast this with Europe, where relatively new buildings might share space with Roman ruins and parking lot renovations turn into archeological digs. This constant confrontation with history requires a different mindset and leads to different approaches to design.

A recent visit to Scandinavia brought these differences into stark contrast for me. I was walking down a pedestrian street in Stockholm, Sweden and I noticed a pair of concrete barricades blocking cars from entering the area. These weren’t your typical Jersey barriers, however, because they were cleverly sculpted to look like lions – functional pieces of art incorporated into the streetscape instead of utilitarian eyesores. The Stockholm “lejon” barriers were created by artist Anders Årfelt in 1995 as a way to guard pedestrians from traffic while encouraging human interaction. They have since become popular local landmarks.

Lion Equation

What I liked about this solution is that it elegantly combines modern safety features with Swedish history (lions were added to the Swedish coat of arms in the 15th century) and a tradition of stone guardians that can be traced back to the Han Dynasty. Many of the castles we toured during our vacation had stone or marble lions (AKA “foo dogs”) at the gates and so these modern traffic barriers help enhance a strong local lineage.

Although the U.S. has historically made extensive use of similar icons, their popularity has yet to translate into more whimsical — yet practical — uses like the Stockholm lion barriers. This is because the current American approach to public design is limited by a strong cultural reluctance to invest in the community. To put it bluntly, no-frills design is considered a better use of taxpayer money. In these austere times, local governments can barely scrape together enough cash to collect the garbage, let alone pay artists to design something that taxpayers feel is unnecessary.

This line of thinking is unfortunate because there’s a lot of value in making cities more attractive to both residents and tourists. A recent study by the Knight Foundation found that physical beauty and opportunities for socializing helped strengthen the emotional bonds people had with their communities and that higher levels of community attachment were associated with increased GDP and stronger economies. This link between aesthetics and economics was made explicitly clear in the Stockholm example when my wife and I discovered a small shop inside the main train station that sold miniature replicas of the concrete lion barriers as paperweights. I paid a few hundred Swedish Kroner for the memento … money that circulated directly back into the local economy solely because somebody thought it would be a cool idea to make something special. Try doing that with a Jersey barrier!

Two Lions

Earnings and Unemployment by College Major

The Wall Street Journal recently published a table of income and unemployment data  that presented pay and employment rates for various college majors. The original study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce contained enough additional details that I thought it might be worth trying to incorporate the information into a Tableau visualization.

After a little data massaging, I created charts for both the high-level fields of study and the more detailed individual majors. Each level contains unemployment rates, income levels, and popularity of major measured by number of enrollees.

One of the first things you notice is that, despite frequent claims to the contrary, college graduates with a degree in Education have the lowest median earnings overall. The Education field also has the narrowest range of income and includes four of the ten majors with the lowest median earnings. On the plus side, fifteen of the sixteen Education majors have (or had at the time of the study) unemployment rates below 5.5% — the weighted average rate of unemployment for all majors in the study.

Graduates with an Engineering degree have the highest median earnings overall and a relatively low unemployment rate compared to other disciplines. In addition, seven of the ten majors with the highest median earnings were found in Engineering.

Other majors with good earnings potential included the usual suspects (Computers & Mathematics, Health, and Business) while the best employment prospects were found in Education, Health, Physical Sciences, and Agriculture & Natural Resources.

As for individual majors, the winners in my completely fictitious categories are as follows:

  • Most Popular –  Business Management & Administration takes this category with nearly 2.8 million grads holding this degree. The next two majors in line (also in the Business field) weren’t even close — trailing by over a million people.
  • Best Prospects –  Actuarial Science beat out four other fully-employed competitors by coming in with a median income of over $80K.
  • Worst Prospects –  Clinical Psychology tops this category with an estimated unemployment rate of nearly 20%. Yikes! I also noticed that a number of other majors in the Psychology field had unemployment rates above 10%, which means that intra-discipline career changes for people with this major would be difficult.
  • Most Deceptive – The “winner” here is Architecture, an outlier with the lowest median earnings and the highest unemployment rate of all of the Engineering majors. For this category, I wanted a relatively popular major with an uncommonly high unemployment rate … the kind of major that churns out grads and then strands them in the unemployment line. An educational Judas, if you will. (Full disclosure: I have an Architecture degree, but I can’t say I wasn’t warned.)
  • Hidden Gem – I’m going to call this one a tie between Petroleum Engineering and Pharmacy Pharmaceutical Sciences & Administration. Petroleum Engineering has a slight edge on median earnings ($127K vs. $105K) but the Pharma major has a lower overall unemployment rate (3.2% vs. 4.4%). You probably can’t go wrong with either one but keep on eye on the horizon … Petroleum Engineering is notoriously dependent on the boom/bust cycles of the oil and gas industry while workers in the pharmaceutical industry are facing major changes as companies try to adjust to globalization and increasing costs of product development. 

A KISS isn’t Always Just a Kiss

One of the first design principles I remember learning in architecture school was the acronym KISS or ‘keep it simple, stupid.’ The professor who said this phrase clearly intended it to serve as a warning to students not to bite off more than they could chew. Not exactly a vote of confidence but it at least it introduced us to idea that broad design concepts could be used to help make individual design decisions.

There are many modern artistic movements that adopt this ‘less is more’ philosophy and focus solely on the inherent elegance of clean, unadorned design. The problem with this interpretation is that it still misses the mark regarding simplicity. There is a difference between minimalism — the idea of reducing something to its essential components — and simplicity — the idea of reducing overall complexity. Minimalism is almost entirely driven by the creative desires of the designer while simplicity must also take into account the needs of the user. Simplicity is often harder to acheive because it requires designers and engineers to anticipate problems and relationships that aren’t always readily apparent.

Perhaps a more appropriate interpretation of KISS (and one that appears to be closer to the original intent of the term) might be ‘keep it simple and stupid.’ This shifts attention away from the designer and toward the user and their relationship with the designed object. This isn’t to say that the user is an idiot, but that a good design shouldn’t require them to think more than is necessary. The relationship between the user and the object should be as natural as possible. In a sense, good design shifts the burden of thinking away from the user and places it on the shoulders of the designer. This takes more effort on the part of the designer.