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August 14, 2003

David Sucher, Day One


As you've gathered from some recent postings of mine, I'm a big fan of David Sucher and his website, book and blog, all of which go by the name City Comforts (the main page is here; the blog is here). David's a building and architecture buff -- but that's not quite right. He's an unusual and refreshing one, because he doesn't fixate on celebrity buildings, on what he calls "the building as precious object." And he doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about the usual architecture-crit stuff -- building as self-expression, or as expression of its era.

As the words "City" and "Comforts" suggest, what David's mostly concerned with is the background and fabric: neighborhoods, blocks. The first thing he'll do when confronted with a new building is ask if it contributes to or detracts from its neighborhood. (This should be the first question any commentator on architecture asks.) Here's a wonderful sentence from a piece David wrote about superstar Rem Koolhaas' in-construction Seattle Public Library: "We pay too much attention to how a building appears; the central question for every building is how it behaves." Can’t beat that for substantial and succinct.

I love David's style and approach. He resolutely avoids the theoretical and the intellectualized; he's always dragging the conversation back to practical matters. He's an obsessive, but in the most agreeable and modest way. In the tradition of people like William Whyte and Jane Jacobs, he's fascinated by what works and what doesn't. The kernel of his advice is what he refers to as the Three Rules. (Read more about them here.) They're simple guidelines (with complex implications and consequences) that'll drastically increase the chances a retail neighborhood will be a lively, pedestrian-oriented one -- the kind of place people go a little out of their way to visit and enjoy.

Readers who value pleasure and comfort more than brilliance and self-conscious style should be delighted by David's work. It's about the basics: why is this neighborhood popular, and why is that one not? Why do people use this park and not that one? Why is this sidewalk bustling and lively, and that one bleak and empty? You'd think architects and critics would be more concerned with such subjects, woudn't you? And would see their own jobs as beginning with these questions, too.

David's been blogging now for a couple of months, and he's finishing revisions and tweaks on a new edition of his book. (I’ll run an announcement when it goes on sale.) He sweetly sent me a PDF of the book, and I'm mega-enthused -- copies ought to be given out wholesale to planners and local politicians everywhere. It's full of pictures, examples, and discussions of things and approaches that work -- benches, doorways, parking arrangements. Feet-on-the-ground, commonsense stuff, the architecture-and-building equivalent of basic good manners.

Like his blog, the book is an easy-reading, attractive, casual-seeming thing that -- in a quiet way -- expresses an amazingly well-developed point of view. Which boils down to: the neighborhood and block are always more important than the individual building. You want ideology? Hysteria? Combativeness? Theory? Go elsewhere. You’re interested in how to ensure that a pedestrian passageway doesn't turn into a garbage-strewn mistake? Or how to cope with a parking lot? Or what kinds of chairs tend to work best in outdoor cafes? Now we're talking.

I gave David a call and enjoyed a long chat with him. Here’s how it went.



2Blowhards: What's your background?
David Sucher:
I'm 55. I've done a bit of real-estate development. Modest things. Condominiums in Seattle. Some neighborhood commercial buildings. I went to undergraduate college at Columbia. I came to Seattle to go to graduate school in geography. I've been here in Seattle, well -- more than half of my life.

2B: How did City Comforts come about?
I was on the planning commission in the city of Seattle. We had a planning effort to develop design guidelines for new construction. I was on that task force and I noticed something very strange. Here we were, a bunch of professionals -- architects, builders, developers, citizens who were virtually professionals, advocates. And nobody ever talked about buildings -- in the formal meetings, or even before or after the meetings. There was no discussion of the actual subject matter of the task force.

2B: What was on their minds instead?
Process. How many meetings we should have, and if you applied for a permit, how much notice should be given to the neighborhood for comment -- definitely important procedural issues. But I found it odd. All these people on a personal level were interested in the built environment, but we didn't talk about it. I looked around and listened to conversations in general, and there were very few discussions about the built environment. And when there was, it was unsophisticated and short-lived. It's not that people were stupid. Far from it. It’s just that none of us were in the habit of talking about buildings in a substantive way. People will talk about professional sports in a very knowledgeable way --

2B: It's surprising how much more they know about sports than they do about their own neighborhood.
Very true. They're often very smart about sports. But about the built environment? Anyway, I got the idea for this thing 10 or 12 years ago. It's based on details, on not looking at the big picture. Why? Because the little elements are what people come in contact with on a moment by moment basis.

2B: Where do your ideas come from?
I don't have any ideas. I look around at the physical environment and see what I like. And those things do represent ideas, that's true, but it's not a priori, it's post hoc. I look around and say "Oh!" And that's where the Three Rules come from. A local Seattle design critic and friend, Mark Hinshaw, had come up with a list of urban basics in an article he’d written for a local paper. I seem to remember now that he said to build to the sidewalk and have doors and windows. Simple as it was -- and that was his point too -- it was a mind-boggling insight, for me. I think I added parking as a corollary. I mean, it should really be “Two Rules and a Corollary,” but “Three Rules” is simpler, though not as funny. Anyway, I looked at Mark’s article and thought, No, let's boil it down even further. Let's make it more raw. I thought he had included important but somewhat lower-priority issues -- have a bit of green -- in his list. So I boiled it down to what I thought then and now as the bare essentials of urbanness. And I came up with the Three Rules. That's the core of what makes a place that feels urban. Look at it a different way: can you suggest any people-place, any pedestrian-oriented neighborhood, which does NOT follow the Three Rules? I don’t want to sell the Three Rules. I simply ask whether there are neighborhoods which conform to anything else. Of course there will be occasional buildings which are exceptions -- maybe it will have a plaza. But those will be exceptions. Just ask yourself if you know of any great places which do no conform to the Three Rules.

2B: A book, a website -- that's a big commitment.
Well, it's a serious hobby. I don't think I ever really decided to write a book. I started collecting photographs as I'd go on vacations. I wound up with a lot of snapshots of interesting things and details -- designs that work. At roughly the same time, I had the idea that the city of Seattle should develop a design awards process. And Seattle does have one now. It’s called Designs That Work. The idea was to focus on specific elements: doors, gates. And they weren't able to do it. The group in charge ended up giving awards to whole buildings instead of saying, This is a great doorway! You can have an otherwise terrible project that has one great element. And they weren't able to do that. They fell into the AIA trap of giving prizes to an entire project.

2B: When did the first edition of the book come out?
It's been a while -- 1995.

2B: And the new edition?
Well, I'm still struggling with the photographs. I’m not satisfied with all the photos, and I'm doing the new edition in color, so I want to get it right. I may wind up doing part of the book in black and white finally.

2B: Are you designing the book yourself?
Not at all. I’m working with a variety of specialists: graphic artists, editors, proofreaders, etc. Right now I am driving them crazy by continually tinkering -- “Hey, I saw a much better image for page such-and-such,” and “You know, I just rewrote part of page such-and-such.” I probably need an intervention to stop me from working on it forever. Of course, after all this effort who knows if it will even sell ten copies. So it would be crazy for me if at least I didn’t really like the book.

2B: Who's your publisher?
I am. Self-published.

2B: Good for you. I'm a big fan of self-publishing.
I think Amazon has changed things. Not in terms of selling things so much, because they take such a big discount. But in terms of making it available and in getting people used to buying on the web. I'll make the next edition available to the major book distributors because it's necessary, but I'm not going to put much energy into marketing to bookstores, because I think they're, unfortunately, a waste of time for an unknown like me. There is absolutely no way that I can reach potential buyers through most bookstores. I don’t justify table space, and if I do it’s just for a few days. I can understand the bookstore owners’ position. Of course, the specialty shops are very helpful, places like the National Building Museum Bookshop in Washington, D.C. They act as sources of new information for people interested in a specialty. But general bookstores just can’t be bothered with keeping a book like mine in stock.

2B: You'll work instead via your own site, and Amazon?
Right. I think people do browse on the web, and they browse on Amazon and on blogs. So I think the world is undergoing some weird change. I hope it's positive.

2B: How are you finding the process of blogging? Different than working on the book?
I'm enjoying it. Though like everyone else I've gotten obsessed by how many hits I'm getting. (Laughs.) Now that I'm into blogs, I've started to notice that I'm starting to look at the blogs before I look at the newspapers.

2B: My own newspaper consumption is way down.
I wonder how this is going to work itself out. What would happen if Dowd or Safire established a blog? Do they have enough of a following that people would pay to read them? Conversely, could someone who's already famous, a political figure like Ralph Nader -- what happens if Ralph Nader establishes a blog? Would more people start reading blogs simply because famous people start doing it?

2B: I sense your entrepreneurial spirit at work.
Well, it's fascinating. People like Sullivan and InstaPundit are putting enormous amounts of time into it. It's related to the whole ITunes thing, which I find fascinating. It raises the issue: what are record companies going to be doing? I think there's a role for them, but maybe not in physical production. Maybe in studio management, in marketing. The actual physical distribution of objects seems to be getting much less important.

2B: As soon as you turn something into digits --
Buckminster Fuller talked about this years ago. He called it "ephemeralization." He saw it as a universal process in society. Every industrial process moves through it.

2B: You've linked on your site to a few pieces you've done for the Seattle paper. Are you a regular there?
No. I have a nice relationship with them but it's just the occasional op-ed. I've been following the new Rem Koolhaas library, for instance. I'm going down today to photograph it, and to see whether I've understood the result from looking at the plans.

2B: What's missing from the general discussion about buildings and cities and towns?
At the moment there's just not enough at it. If people were doing more of it, they'd get more skilled. People don't notice. I have discussions with people, and they let their mental images of something triumph over what's actually there. For example, I had a talk with a friend here in Seattle, and he said, the views of Elliott Bay are being blocked as you walk along First Avenue. I said, Wait a second. There are in fact bigger buildings there now, but there have been one or two story buildings there for the last fifty years at the very least. And a one or two story building on the water side of the street, when you're walking along the lee side, it's still going to block your view. So why would he think the view is newly blocked? The buildings are bigger now, but from a pedestrian's point of view the views are no more blocked than they were before. I don't know what to make of this. I guess one thing that's missing is people actually experiencing stuff. They have images in their minds, but I don't think they go out and get a lot of ground truth.

2B: Is the architecture press helping people see what's really there?
No, they're terrible. The New York Times' Herbert Muschamp is a particularly egregious example. Some of them are interesting and OK. I like reading Paul Goldberger, who, like a lot of them, talks as much about the politics and personalities as the finished work. We have a columnist in town who's terrible. We had a contentious issue in town about whether we should finance and build a monorail. It eventually passed by a very small margin and is in the process of being designed. Her article described walking along the current monorail’s route as a way of understanding its impacts on the streetscape. A very good technique, I thought. But she didn't get the map right. She missed streets. She conveniently overlooked significant new development. She didn't fib, exactly, but she was inaccurate. It was just bad reporting.

2B: What else do you run into?
I had a very interesting experience a couple of years ago. I took part in a neighborhood conference about a new convention building in Washington D.C. When I got there, I had no idea about the center, I was brand new to it. So I asked questions about it. And I found out that nobody could describe it! So I developed a technique, which will appear in the third edition of the book: Walk around the plan. What we did in this public meeting was to get everyone to use the plan and pretend to walk around the building, stopping, say, every 20 feet. What are we standing next to now? What are we adjacent to now? And we did that for the entire huge building. It was fascinating.

2B: It must have been a huge help.
I'll quote Edward Said, who was a lit professor of mine at Columbia. We were reading poems. And he said, Well, what's going on here? And someone got up and started interpreting it, as 17 year olds will do, in some high-falutin' way. And he said, No, hold on. Before you get into interpretation, what's actually happening in the poem. Like in law school: what are the facts? Who's speaking? Give me some nouns and verbs, not your interpretation. That's where you start when you read literature, especially poems. You have to understand what's going on. I'd argue that the same holds true for buildings. I'd say the first question a good critic should make clear to the reader is: What's going on here? Simple, factual stuff. What's it doing? How is it located? Do that before getting into all the stuff about how the layers are floating on top of each other. Start with good reportage. Then you can get into the interpretive stuff.

2B: I don't know why, but architecture seems to promote a kind of looniness, even more than the other arts People get ideological, or they hero-worship the architects, or they lose track of basic factual stuff. What leads to that?
I don't know. I just put up a posting about a piece I read in I was reading an article by Sophie Jeffries and Roger Scruton, and I think I agree with almost everything they say. But I'm not sure what they mean by modernism and classicism, which is of course the core of the article. Are they talking about it as architectural form or as a way of governance? They seem to speak about it as a building process -- somehow the classical building process was supposed to have been more community oriented. It's a fetching notion that 18th century Bath was created by community consensus, but it's nonsensical. It was created by a bunch of capitalists to make money, rich landowners who recognized there was a growing middleclass who wanted to go on vacation. But I'm interested and sympathetic. But even they -- and they're really intelligent and I suspect that I largely agree with them -- aren't talking about what the buildings are actually like. I'd like to see them come down to earth a bit. Would a strip mall built with classical elements be OK just because it has those classical elements?

2B: I wonder.
They're very perceptive and articulate observers. But even in that article, which I liked, I wanted to know more practical things. I enjoyed the oratory, but I also want to know how to change the zoning codes.

2B: What are some of the basic mistakes American towns and cities make?
I'm really serious: people haven't discovered, much less digested, the Three Rules. They're very powerful pattern generators. They're not simple to follow. Where in NYC are you?

2B: Greenwich Village.
OK, go out into the boroughs, and you'll see: Urban form starts with the location of the parking lot, period. That's another way of putting the Three Rules. If you want to build pedestrian-oriented cities, you've got to build pedestrian-oriented buildings, and that means you've got to follow the Three Rules. Following them will precipitate all sorts of other issues -- the politics of automobiles, for example. How do you deal with an urban arterial that's managed by a state transportation department that only thinks about rushing cars through? That's not an easy question.

2B: Given that the Three Rules are so important, what are the challenges in getting people to pay attention to them?
I think people want a more complicated answer. Some want an answer that relates to either "capitalism is bad and that's where ugliness comes from," or to "liberals are controlling too much of the bureaucracy." The Three Rules are non-ideological -- I'm experimenting in my mind with using the word "libertarian," but I haven't got the nerve yet. (laughs) The Three Rules are a way of cutting back on the zoning codes. They're non-ideological because they serve a lot of people's interests. It'd satisfy a conservative political constituency: look, we're just going to simplify things here. Very simple rules, and within that envelope you can do anything you want. And that's all we need. But so far I'm not very successful at getting it across.

2B: How would the Three Rules satisfy a liberal political constituency?
Liberals will like them because they are pro-city and pro-pedestrian.

2B: What are examples of places you like and approve of?
I’d say almost any neighborhood built before 1950 has the spatial “bones” to be an interesting place. They follow the Three Rules because that’s the way things were done before the 1950s. Some of those neighborhoods are now very depressed and very slummy. So the Three Rules are no guarantee of social happiness -- there are other factors in having a prosperous community. It’s easy to focus on the sociology of an area and ignore the underlying spatial structure. So in terms of places I like, it’s pretty much what everyone else likes. Where do people go for vacation? Paris, Manhattan, Aspen, Nantucket, Carmel, etc etc. Those places are neat. So my “research” for City Comforts consisted of going on vacation.

End Part One. To be continued tomorrow.

posted by Friedrich at August 14, 2003


provides, among other things, a timely and useful perspective on the real effects of the zoning codes we're currently stuck with. definitely worth a look from page 4 onward.

Posted by: neil on August 14, 2003 05:37 PM

huh? the link on that comment should be:

Posted by: neil on August 14, 2003 05:38 PM

Perhaps the strongest and most invisible opponent of building interesting urban and even suburban environments is the local fire department. It's amazing how much design is driven by the requirements of making everything accessable to large fire trucks.

Posted by: rashomon on August 14, 2003 06:01 PM

Cities need to be made comfortoble [SP] not only for human beings but also for robot virtual entities. announces that "AI has been solved."

A friend of mine recently borrowed the first edition of "City Comforts" by David Sucher from the local library, and raved about what an enjoyable, entertaining read it was. Therefore we are all waiting eagerly for the second edition of City Comforts -- the second coming, as it were, of David Sucher. If you want that book to be under Christmas trees in 2003, Mr/Dr/Prof David Sucher, you had better hurry up and get it out.

Posted by: Arthur on August 15, 2003 07:39 AM

"ground truth" That's an interesting concept. A lot of people experience the built environment from their cars. They're more interested in "car truth", how will something affect their driving experience. There are no sidewalks in many suburbs, and then the "sociological" reasons many downtowns seem hostile to outsiders.

Sports is like comfort reading. It's not really contentious or personal. There's always next year. And people have vested interests in promoting it. In local politics, development issues, real estate, it seems like the less people know, the less they are involved, the better for the people who do know. The winning and losing seem more serious. There's a finality, a permanence in having something built.

I've seen comments about fire departments demanding huge right of ways. In the fancy, wooded estate part of town near where I live, they manage to get by on narrow two-lane roads with no shoulders. But then there are no sidewalks either, it's not meant to be a pedestrian environment.

Posted by: Matt L on August 17, 2003 03:02 PM

Congratulations from Brazil!
Your site is a very good example of how create new forms of communication and art, without being manipulated by the media owners.

Posted by: lauro on August 21, 2003 12:24 PM

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