The Machine Is a Garden

In 1898, an unassuming British stenographer hatched the idea of “garden cities” as an antidote to dirty, crowded London. Today, a revival of that idea is spreading from the U.K. to China to India — and some people think it just might help save the planet.

Foreign Policy, September/October 2014 

ON 71ST AVENUE, JUST SOUTH OF QUEENS BOULEVARD, IN FOREST HILLS, NEW YORK, THERE’S A SMALL SHOPPING STRIP THAT LOOKS LIKE COUNTLESS OTHERS IN AMERICAN CITIES. Banks, shoe stores, and delis sit side by side, recalling a time not so long ago when going shopping meant more than a trip to Target. But keep heading south, crossing under an elevated railway, and it feels like entering a different kind of time warp: Abruptly, asphalt becomes brick and spills into a broad, sunny square. Red-tiled, half-timbered buildings suggest an Italian piazza by way of medieval England. Shady sidewalks curve away from the square. The only reminder that it’s the 21st century, and that this is New York, is the rumble of a train on the Long Island Rail Road overhead.

This sense of being in a city, but not of it, is precisely what the designers of Forest Hills Gardens intended. In 1909, after buying 142 acres of open land, the Russell Sage Foundation hired architect Grosvenor Atterbury and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. — son of Central Park’s famous creator — to build a model suburb. It was to be an example of the new developments that the explosion of railroads and streetcars were producing, a place that combined the best of town and country. For inspiration, Atterbury and Olmsted looked to a new trend in England said to offer just this kind of mix: garden cities.

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Urban-Think Tank

Going Top Down

Urban-Think Tank, best known for its vertical gyms in the Caracas barrios, has a new strategy for building in Third World slums.

Architect, May 2014

When I call him, Alfredo Brillembourg is eating lunch in Zurich, on a terrace beside the lake, the Swiss Alps on the horizon. He describes the scene to me in detail and with evident delight. Maybe he’s trying to stress how different Zurich is from Caracas, Venezuela, where he lived for many years. Or maybe he’s just being charming—an essential quality if you want to build what and where he does.

Brillembourg, who is Venezuelan-American, and his partner Hubert Klumpner, from Austria, founded Urban-Think Tank (U-TT) as an architecture firm in 1998 to empower the poor through design. It was before the architecture world at large showed any interest in slums or informal urban settlements. For years, amid rising poverty, crime, and corruption, they fought to build social projects in Caracas’s barrios—home to about 60 percent of the city’s population. Today they are professors of architecture and urban design at ETH Zurich. Both appreciate how ironic it is that their current city is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most livable, while Caracas, their former home, languishes near the bottom of the same rankings.

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Photograph by Stefan Jermann

RIBA Urges Larger Homes

As U.S. housing starts trending tiny, architects across the pond are looking to upsize British housing.

Architect, Aug. 15, 2013

While American homes metastasized during the late 20th century, Britain’s shrunk, and the country now has the smallest homes in Europe. “Battery hen Britain,” the Daily Mail tabloid has declared.

The average size of all new dwellings built in 2008 in the U.K.—houses, townhouses and apartments—was 818 square feet. That’s a scant third of the average new single-family home in the United States, and quite a bit smaller even than the average new apartment built that year, which was 1,250 square feet. Today, after the recession, the average new apartment built in the U.S. is still 1,138 square feet.

Two years ago, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) began calling for more space and natural light in new U.K. homes. RIBA is now asking Parliament to adopt national minimum standards for space and light. London already has such standards for its housing, and RIBA recommends that these be rolled out across the U.K.

With Parliament’s review imminent, the architects’ association is pulling out all the stops for its campaign, called HomeWise (call to action: “Fight for Space+Light”), to build bigger.

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