In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Charlton's Choices | Main | Moviegoing and DVD Journal: "Inland Empire" and "7 Men From Now" »

March 05, 2007

Urban "Design" Cures All

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards ---

James Lileks is one of the very best writers on the Web and from time to time he dishes out what his blog calls "Bleats" about architecture and the urban environment.

Just in case you missed it, today's post is an in-depth fisking of interview remarks by Thomas Fisher, dean of the new School of Design at the University of Minnesota.

Go to the link and scroll past the first four paragraphs (dealing with another subject) and begin reading at the boldface line starting "I read the editorial pages...".

Here's a sample:

[Fisher:] " - I asked if the problem was housing or train or transportation. They said it was all of those. They [homeless teenage mothers] can't get from affordable hosing to day care to a job and back again because we've designed a bus system for the benefit of the operators (??), housing at the behest of zooming code and jobs that require a car, which people can't afford. This is a classic design problem."

[Lileks:] Well. As the adage has it, if all you have is a degree in Design, everything looks like a design problem. You, bus driver operator! Move that route closer to the teenaged unwed mother's house! You there, subsidized day-care - shimmy over a mile to the left and a few versts the south, so the teenaged unwed mother can take the bus to your place without having to transfer. You there, "supplier" of jobs, even though you merely leech off the labor of others and turn the profit into a smooth cream you rub on your spats-chafed ankles - move the jobs into the city near the teenage unwed mother's house and daycare.




posted by Donald at March 5, 2007


It doesn't strike me as ludicrous to suggest that bus lines be routed through the neighborhoods most dependent on buses. In Portland, OR, which has put a lot of energy into public transport, there's a degree of skew toward middle-class areas which use buses less. Politics probably determines this, since the buses need subsidies and the lines have to be sold to voters (not to users).

Nothing too odd about thinking that subsidized housing should be on bus lies either, for the same reason.

Siting of jobs is a different story. since it's ruled by land prices, transportation patterns, shopping patterns, etc.

Posted by: John Emerson on March 6, 2007 10:02 AM

If we put up a statue of an unwed teen mother in the park but an unwed teen mother couldn't get to it because...because she couldn't get to it...would that be fair?

Posted by: ricpic on March 6, 2007 10:16 AM


The piece by Lileks was quite thought-provoking. Although I don't agree with him on everything (the skyways in downtown Minneapolis, for example, are nice to be in on a day like today but I really do think they've hurt the street level), I think he makes some excellent points.

In the excerpt you posted, I think he's spot-on. (And I say this again as a supporter of mass transit.) Logic dictates that if you can't reach the people who most need transit (i.e. the poor, disadvantaged, unemployed, etc.), then you bring them all together in one area so they can be better served. Isn't that how we wound up with the kinds of ghettos we have now? And there's no question of the damage the highways and freeways caused, not only to the neighborhoods Lileks cites but the social fabric of the city. Another of the legacies of Robert Moses, I think.

Living in downtown Minneapolis as I do, I can see that there are problems - big ones. We have almost 30,000 people living downtown, but we're plagued with a lack of retail, increasing crime, a downtown that isn't particularly aesthetically welcoming. Fisher is absolutely right when he says one of the ways to cut down on crime is to increase the number of people around.

That said, the problem is that while Fisher does makes some good points, and I consider myself a fan of the New Urbanism, it seems that every time the government gets involved it turns out more like social engineering. And we know how well that works.


Posted by: Mitchell on March 6, 2007 2:33 PM

I've never been to Minneapolis, so I may be a bit off base here -- and maybe I'd feel differently if I experienced the skyway system over time on an everyday basis. But even as a Greenwich Village, Jane Jacobs urbanist, it seems to me that it's kind of neat that there are a few cities, here and there, that have amazingly extensive networks of skyways.

My thinking is that for most cities a skyway system is probably a bad idea, and that even the somewhat unique one in Minneapolis (unique because it is so extensive) apparently has some strong negatives to it. But, on the other hand, why shouldn't cities experiment and try different and unique ways to deal with their climate and geography? Why should all cities be the same?

So it seems to me (at least from afar) that Minneapolis (especially if the city ever finds a way to ameliorate some of the negatives of the skyway system) could be thought of as a 20th-21st Century, landlocked version of Venice or Amsterdam.

P.S. -- Part of my enthusiasm for skywalks, at least under some special circumstances, is due to my experience with the very small skywalk system in Lower Manhattan -- and especially the skywalk that used to connect the World Financial Center with the World Trade Center. It was called the "North Bridge" and I loved it. I thought of it as New York City's own Ponte Vecchio.

It was wide enough to be both a bridge and an exhibition space -- they even occasionally had "street" fairs on it. And it was part of an incredible sequence of spaces that ended at the top of a grand stairway that descends into a skylit Grand Central Terminal-sized spaced having 16 (?) fully grown palm trees and a giant window overlooking a yacht harbor in the Hudson River! And the whole thing actually made a certain amount of sense (or could have made a lot of sense, if they hadn't made a few easily correctible mistakes in the design) because of the special topography of the World Trade Center and the World Financial Center. (Basically, because of the sloping topography of the World Trade Center site, the "street-level" plaza of the World Trade Center extended imperceptibly -- actually became -- the second-story skywalk system of the WFC.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 6, 2007 7:13 PM


The skyways here are kind of interesting. They're purely functional; i.e. they exist as airborne sidewalks. Some of them have more attractive decor than others, but they aren't wide enough to serve as anything other than walkways.

Now, as someone who both lives and works downtown, I'll freely admit that they're very nice to have, especially with some of the cold weather we've had! And the skyway development that's surrounded them - the second floor of almost every building that has a skyway connection is devoted to retail - makes it very nice when you want to run to a convenience store, a restaurant, or a dry cleaners.

The down side is that there's very little development on the street level. Many of the newer buildings have cavernous atrium space that is empty save for a guard's desk and granite floor. Quite a few buildings have street-level windows that are opaque. And one of the problems which I think Fisher was alluding to in his original comments was that this takes people off the street. Minneapolis has a problem with losing retail to the suburbs in the first place (which, I know, doesn't exactly make us unique) but when you add to that the shortage of foot traffic, it can make downtown a rather forbidding place to be.

Although the skyways are open weekends, much of the retail is not, since it caters to the workday crowd. Therefore, going through the skyways on a Saturday or Sunday can be a pretty empty experience as well.

With the steady increase in crime in downtown Minneapolis, this lack of people can make some areas rather intimidating. My wife and I live only about ten blocks away from Orchestra Hall, and yet we drive there for evening concerts because to walk there would entail going past three surface parking lots, a handful of empty, former retail space, and a bunch of darkened office buildings. I completely agree with Fisher that increased foot traffic can decrease crime.

So while I use the skyways as much as anyone (and know my way around the system about as well as anyone), there are some real negatives to it. Minneapolis is a beautiful area, and the downtown especially is experiencing tremendous residential growth (I can't think of anywhere I'd rather live than downtown), but I think unless we do something about making the city more accessible (and I don't mean that in the same sense that Fisher did, talking about mass transit) we're going to continue to see a gradual decline.

Posted by: Mitchell on March 7, 2007 2:26 PM

"but I think unless we do something about making the city more accessible (and I don't mean that in the same sense that Fisher did, talking about mass transit) we're going to continue to see a gradual decline."

I don't understand what is meant by "more accessible" if it doesn't mean expanding mass transit. I'd be interested to know of a city with a vibrant, active street-life that doesn't have good mass transit options.

Posted by: Fitz Bromide on March 7, 2007 5:22 PM


As a matter of fact, I do tend to be more of a supporter of mass transit than Lileks might appear to be from his comment (I've taken the bus to work all through college, and most of my adult life (which is longer than I care to admit).

But in the context of this discussion, making the city more accessible means more open, more inviting. Rather than having the surface parking lots we either have development or green space (or, preferably both - DT Minneapolis has Gold Medal Park going in next to the new Guthrie). An accessible city offers streetscapes that are not frosted windows and large, sheer building fronts. It has graduated entrances that bring people into a building rather than drive them away like fortresses. It has more retail, more experiences that can be reached by foot rather than car. It adopts an architectural philosophy that does not seek to tear down historic buildings in favor of the new and modern (as Minneapolis sadly did in the 50s and especially the 60s). It allows for buildings with character. It makes for a more inviting pedestrian experience, where people actually want to be outside rather than in.

Now, does mass transit have a role to play in this? Perhaps, but that's not what I'm talking about at all. By accessible I do not mean accessing the city from another area; I am talking about the aesthetic accessibility of the place, the need to make it a more pleasant place to be, less cold, gray and sterile. We may be talking about philosophy or perhaps merely semantics, but it remains that many visitors to downtown Minneapolis do not find it an aesthetically accessible city.

Posted by: Mitchell on March 7, 2007 10:13 PM


Thanks for the more detailed information about downtown Minneapolis!

In the back of my mind I'm kind of wondering (although I suspect I know at least part of the answer) why the empty atria and ground-level lobbies / spaces downtown aren't used for more inherently "low rent" -- but still nice -- types of businesses and enterprises: i.e. businesses and activities that don't need really highly traffiked (sp?) locations, but could really benefit from inexpensive space (space that is otherwise going to waste). Some examples that come to mind: "branch" galleries of museums and libraries; community theaters / art cinemas; art galleries; commercial day care centers; stock brokerage / mutual fund offices (or back offices); antique stores; doctors / dentists offices and clinics; doggie grooming / day care; law offices; proprietary schools (trade schools); health clubs, etc.

For instance, in the pre-9/11 World Trade Center, the "plaza level" storefronts were apparently difficult to rent out commercially because they were really not ideal for the retail they were intended for. Eventually one large section of store fronts was rented out to a day care center. Not only was this space retatively cheap (I'm guessing) for the day care center to rent (because it was a "bad" location that was otherwise difficult to rent out), but the location was ideal for a day care center because parents could bring their kids to work and conventinetly drop them off and pick them up and have them neaby in case of emergenices. Plus it was such a delight for the everyone else to walk by and see the toddlers at play through the big picture windows.

A number of big corporations in NYC have used their high ceiling ground floor lobby spaces as exhibition space for visiting museum shows or to show off their own products or services.

Near where I live, there are some big office buildings that apparently have had trouble renting out their ground floor space for the "ususal" commercial uses (restaurants, stores, etc.). One place rented out its high-ceilinged ground floor out to a "gym" where they teach gympnastics classes to kids. Another office building (owned by a union) uses their high-ceilinged ground floor as a union assemby hall. The space used to be used as an art cinema (the "Film Forum") which has now moved to the ground floor of another office building.

- - - - - -

From the photos I've seen, the Minneapolis skyways seem to look kind of bland and/or forbidding from the street. Too bad the building owners haven't decided to have more "fun" with the design. The exteriors of skywalks, especially the portions that bridge a street, could really be spectacular and special. Maybe one of the Minneapolis art schools / civic organizations could sponsor a contest on ways to enliven the exterior look of the skyway system? (Maybe they have already?)

Some thoughts that come to mind: bay windows; open balconies, exterior stairways; skywalk bridges decorated with year-round "over-the-top" "Christmas" lighting spectaculars; applique Venetian facades; skywalk bridges decorated with futuristic Buck Rodgers inspired neon tubing; skywalk bridges decorated with zipper lights (like the kind that used to decorate movie marquees); skywalk bridges decorated with moving "ticker-tape" news updates like the one in NYC's Times Square; bridges decorated with LCD advertising displays that totally engulf the skywalk except for the windows; etc.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 8, 2007 10:45 AM

Coincidentally, I just happened to come across an article in the on-line edition of "New York Times" about a building that uses its lobby for rotating art shows. The article is "An Art Gallery in the Lobby," by Lisa Chamberlain and is dated March 7, 2007 (which means it will be available to view for free for another few days).

Here's the URL:

- - - - - - -

By the way, some other possible uses that come to mind for large, empty, office building lobbies and atria: TV studios for local TV / radio shows; rehearsal space for dance / theatrical companies; offices for real estate brokers; auto showrooms (one office building on Park Ave. in New York has an high end auto showroom on its ground floor designed by Frank Lloyd Wright); and exhibit / sales space for specialty stores that are destination stores (don't need lots of foot traffic).

Two examples of such specialty stores:

There used to be a very comprehensive magic / costume shop near me that occupied high rent retail space on a busy retail street. Apparently, the rent eventually became too much (especially for a store doing so much of its business during one part of the year) and they moved to something like the 7th floor of a very off the beaten track loft building. I went there one Christmas to buy some gifts and saw that even in this out of the way location they were mobbed -- because basically the kind of customer they dealt with knows who they are and is willing to search them out.

Another example was the old Lionel Train Company that used to have an enormous train display on the second or third floor (cheap space) of a somewhat out of the way loft building. People knew who they were and where they were, so Lionel didn't need nigh rent retail space with lots of foot traffic. Plus they would get lots of school groups visiting them as for class trips.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 8, 2007 12:45 PM


In the back of my mind I'm kind of wondering (although I suspect I know at least part of the answer) why the empty atria and ground-level lobbies / spaces downtown aren't used for more inherently "low rent" -- but still nice -- types of businesses and enterprises: i.e. businesses and activities that don't need really highly traffiked (sp?) locations, but could really benefit from inexpensive space (space that is otherwise going to waste).

A couple of the buildings across the way do have museum/art gallery-type usage. I don’t ever see anyone there, but they’ve been there for quite awhile, so I have to think they’re doing something right! Unfortunately, most of the rest of the intended retail space in these buildings consists of papered-over (or tarped-over) windows from closed fast-food places, optical shops, hair salons, furniture stores, etc. Some storefront space has gone to a PR firm, which I think is a terrible use of great window space. There are actually a couple of antique/salvage stores downtown, but most of them are in the outlying parts of the city rather than DT proper. But the architecture columnist of the Star Tribune (whom I don’t often agree with) has been outspoken in the uncreative use of atrium space by many of the newer buildings DT. You have some very interesting ideas – you should come to work for our Downtown Council!

From the photos I've seen, the Minneapolis skyways seem to look kind of bland and/or forbidding from the street.

You’re absolutely right. Some of them are quite stylish on top, but very dull at main level.

Too bad the building owners haven't decided to have more "fun" with the design. The exteriors of skywalks, especially the portions that bridge a street, could really be spectacular and special. Maybe one of the Minneapolis art schools / civic organizations could sponsor a contest on ways to enliven the exterior look of the skyway system? (Maybe they have already?)

One of the challenges with the skyways is that, I believe, they’re mostly privately owned (and if someone has better information on this than me, please let me know). St. Paul’s skyways, which are owned by the city, all have a somewhat uniform (if bland) look to them; Minneapolis’ tend to be retrofitted to be in line with one of the two buildings they connect. Architecturally speaking, some of them are quite stylish, but they’re still very static. I think the decorating idea is a terrific one (although I can already hear the city talking about the expense of shutting down traffic to bring the equipment up that would be needed to attach things) and I wonder why they haven’t done it before. Maybe it is logistical. At Christmas time (yup, I’m still old-fashioned enough that I call it that) they light some of the skyways that are on the Nicollet Mall, but most of them remain the same. They used to hang giant wreaths up back in the 80s but maybe they caught some flack on it. This is a very PC town! I really like those ideas, though – I wonder if there really is a good reason why they aren’t done?

Thanks for the comments - I don't mean to try to run down the city; as I've said, it's my boyhood home and I can't really think of many places I'd rather be. But the city is woefully mismanaged (we have a strong council/weak mayor system), and basically a one-party rule (Democrat; the opposition party is the Green Party). I don't say this to pick on the Democrats, merely to point out that it's very difficult to get dynamic leadership and ideas in a one-party city. The city's library system is on the verge of being taken over by Hennepin County because the city can't afford to keep it up at full strength, and the new Twins ballpark (if it's ever built) is being done by the County rather than the city, even though it's being built (supposedly) in DT Minneapolis. And, like most cities, we've suffered a great deal from flight to the suburbs - we must have more malls per capita than any major city around. This is one of those cities that is a good place to live in spite of its leadership, rather than because of it.

Posted by: Mitchell on March 8, 2007 4:42 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?