CNU21 Friday Afternoon

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The New Economy of Sharing

   This session practiced what it preached, as it was a swap-fest of sharing ideas. Participants included Eliza Harris, Jen Krouse, Dhiru Thadani, Robert Orr, & Ann Daigle.

• Eliza: Gigwalk is a good site where you can hire people for micro-pay to do micro tasks locally.

• Eliza: oDesk is good for job-sharing graphic design.

• Eliza: TaskRabbit deals with high-level tasks like graphic design, and also grocery shopping, donation pickup, etc.

• Jen: Couch-surfing is a new type of sharing that really is just good old-fashioned hospitality. Couch-surfing is highly dependent on trust. Couch-surfing runs your credit card for verification & there are reviews. You organize your couch-surfing stay through a social network similar to AirB&B.

• Dhiru: We are born to share our ideas and observations.

• Dhiru: Successful Kickstarter campaigns show people what they receive when they pledge.

• Dhiru: Some people have raised more than 10,000 times more than what they asked for on Kickstarter.

• Robert: Our co-working space hosted a hack-a-thon, we have group website critiques, charrettes, a distinguished speaker series.

• Robert: Our co-working hosts Yale Tory Party for their debates, and "cocktails in the cinema" where we serve what the stars drink.

• Ann: There are a tremendous number of sharing events in New Orleans now that are creating great energy.

• Ann: Edible Enterprises provides culinary entrepreneurs with all the tools needed to make & market Louisiana food products.

• Ann: Cafe Reconcile began by getting kids off the street and off drugs and into the kitchen to learn to cook.

• Ann: Hollygrove Farms & Market is a New Orleans CSA. It's an experimental farm in the city.

Tactical Urbanism

   I was session-surfing late Friday afternoon and happened into a Tactical Urbanism session that was half-over, and wished later that I'd been there all along. Also, later Tactical Urbanism references by Chuck Marohn in the closing plenary prompted this angry exchange on Twitter. In any case, here's what happened once I got to the session:

• Tactical Urbanism is not about the chair-bomb… it's about the community of activists the chair-bomb creates - Aaron Naparstek

• The session's funniest content: the "honku"… like a haiku, but about not honking, posted on phone poles, etc.

• "how do you not get arrested doing these things?" - audience question

• don't go to affluent neighborhoods to do tactical urbanism. go to a bad part of town where nobody cares; you'll make life better.

CNU21 Unsanctioned

• The MOOC, by Sebastian Thrun is the next big thing in education - Mike Krusse

• True urbanism has intrinsically better and worse units, creating durable diversity - Andrés Duany

• Classical buildings don't necessarily need straight streets - Douglas Duany

• You can't code until you imagine the city - Douglas Duany

Original Green - Hope for Architecture

   Friday evening, I teamed up with Clay Chapman to do a presentation on the theory and practice of the Original Green at CNU21 Unsanctioned. But rather than telling you about it, you could simply watch the video here.

   ~Steve Mouzon

CNU21 Sarah Susanka's Session

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2013 Barranco Award

   I presented the 2013 Barranco Award at the beginning of the Friday morning plenary. Andrew von Maur was this year's winner, but he was traveling in Europe with his students. So Mark Moreno, a fellow-professor at Andrews University, accepted the award for Andrew. Here are my remarks.

Not So Big Meets the New Urbanism


   I had the pleasure of hearing Sarah Susanka speak for the first time in the Friday plenary. I've spoken with her by email for years, and have contributed some of my photographs to her presentations, so this was a treat. Here are my tweets from her presentation:

• I have felt for so long that we have these parallel movements attracting similar people - CNU and Not So Big.

• I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, but how do we make these ideas simple enough that people see?

• We have to begin to bring the New Urbanism into everyday language so we can share what we know more broadly.

• I grew up in a little village in England; we walked everywhere. I walked to the grocery with my mother.

• The thought of children not having the ability to move around in their world seems so sad.


• I remember after moving to Los Angeles as a teen and walking two miles to the grocery at a local strip mall… in tears.

• "We must be the change we wish to see in the world" -Ghandi I don't believe we fully understand that phrase. More on this later.

• Architecture school tends to be fairly harsh, so people get hardened to fight to get their ideas across. At the University of Oregon, we didn't call them "juries," but rather "discussions." It was much more civilized.

• I and my partner started our careers by going to the local home and garden shows. America is desperate for design help, but they don't know where to go to find it.

• We all look for something big because we think it's going to make us feel better.

• The quality that people are looking for doesn't reside in bigness.

• Where's the edge of where we have enough? we'll never find it.

• More food, more shelter, more security… these things will never completely fill the void we feel.

• The feeling of home is a quality, not a quantity.

• The key is finding the sense of home in your own life.

• Community is a quality, just like home is a quality.

• It's an incredible gift to be able to connect with other humans in the creation of their communities and homes.

• Our thoughts are the architecture of our world.

• By continually telling people I was too busy, I was creating the world of "too busyness."

• I realized after years that if I didn't make a change to start writing, nobody was going to do it for me.

• I penciled my writing time into my own calendar. I felt very guilty at first, taking time from my architecture clients, but as I made time, support came.

• It is the simplicity of message that helps people enter what we do.

• You're not writing to impress your fellow colleagues with long words. Simplicity is what speaks.

• Beauty & Balance, Harmony, Home as Security, Sustainability, Well-Being.


• Not So Big can be any size, but it's about a third smaller than what you thought you needed.

• A Not So Big house has the quality of being lived in… not acres of space we seldom visit.

• When you're having people over for dinner, it's not the king and queen of England; it's Joe and Kathy.

• We all had some small spot we loved to hang out as a child… remember yours. This is what we long for but are missing.

• A map of a city tells us nothing whatsoever about the character of the city.

• A map of a house is a floor plan. It tells us very little about the character of the house.

• The information of whether this is a good house does not exist on the floor plan.

• The third dimension is how you connect people to what they're missing. I don't know what the equivalent is for the New Urbanism.

• Light to Walk Towards isn't just a near-death experience… we're literally programmed to walk towards the light.

• The front porch needs to be part of the natural flow within the house if it is to be used.

• I put the kitchen and the dining nook at the front to help activate the front porch.

• It's not a big deal to move a few pieces of furniture to accommodate Thanksgiving dinner because it comes around only once a year.

• Ceiling height variety can help shape space without building walls.

• Get The End of the Suburbs by Leigh Gallagher. It's due out August 2013, and has lots of good press for the New Urbanism.

• Not So Big Living means following your own heart.


• We must use language that communicates what we're really talking about.

• Simple language connects the dots for regular people. I was insulted when my publisher first asked me to write The Not So Big House at an eighth grade level, but it has spread broadly.

• It is critical to foster intermingling of the generations so that they can each teach the other.

• In crises, we learn what really matters, which is our connection with our neighbors - we need to design places that foster that connection.

• Our lives are being run by our stuff, and we have too much stuff, but the void we're trying to fill can't be filled by buying more of it.

• Is there a period in your life when some things are turned off? I don't open email until after lunch, for example.

• We really need to take back the parts of life that nourish us.

• When you look with the eyes of a student, everything can teach you.

• We live in an awesome world, but we're going so fast that we might not even see it.

• We're so busy with our thinking that we miss the big point.

• What is it that really inspires you? place your focus there. our thoughts are the architects of our lives.

• "The only way to change the world is to change yourself" is what I think Ghandi really meant.

• Our words have no effect until our lives back them up.

• When you embody what you're asking, the world changes with you.

• Stay clear on what it is that you're really longing to do, and place your focus there.

   ~Steve Mouzon

CNU21 Thursday Afternoon Recap

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Great American Grid debate kicks off at CNU21

The Great American Grid Debate

   This debate was the most entertaining session I think I've ever attended at a CNU! Paul Knight, Kevin Klinkenberg, Bill Dennis, and Howard Blackson squared off roughly on Lincoln-Douglass debate format, but with tag teams instead of one-on-one. Paul and Kevin took the position that the gridiron layout of cities is a good thing; Bill and Howard took the counter position. Here are the tweets of the proceedings:

• Bill: Making lines straight, as 19th century urbanism has done, eliminates diversity of streetscape.

• Bill: Build an unrelenting grid, and say hasta la vista to interesting man-made vistas.

• Bill: Uniformity of street width and direction is gob-smackingly boring.

• Kevin Q: Mr. Dennis, why do you hate America so much?

• Bill: There is nothing particularly American about the gridiron pattern.

• Bill: A boring street is one where you can tell well in advance what a street is going to be up ahead.

• Bill: Geometric fascism is top-down planning that decides that all streets will be straight.

Great American Grid Debate at CNU21 in full swing

• Paul: Please leave the doors open; there's a lot of residual hot air from Mr. Dennis' presentation.

• Paul: The grid is inherently walkable and provides a good level of connectivity, depending on block size, of course.

• Paul: The grid is inherently navigable. Never ask for directions again if the streets are numbered.

• Paul: The grid behaves as a yardstick if you know the distance between streets… so you know how far you have to travel.

• Paul: The grid is economical to plat and survey, and it allows you to do the most with the least land.

• Paul: Orthogonal blocks are ideally suited to the orthogonality of our lives… look at how many things are built of rectangles.

• Paul: The grid is the best way to accommodate the greatest number of land uses in a given area.

• Paul: The grid is appendable. as long as you know the increments, you know exactly how to expand.

• Bill Q: What is the proper range of block sizes?

• Paul: Ideal blocks are 200' to 600' on a side, with a maximum perimeter of 1800'.

• Howard: The fact that I use the grid, but not nearly so successfully as Geoff Dyer illustrates the grid doesn't guarantee quality.

• Howard: The grid descends from the Law of the Indies that were used to subjugate the New World and the imperial expansion of the Romans before that.

• Paul Q: Howard, let's pretend that you are presidential material in 1785: how would you have divided the Louisiana Purchase?

Howard: I would have based American expansion on greatest common good rather than greatest initial $.

• Kevin: I'm here to set the record straight: urbanism is about sociability - life in public.

• Kevin: We should focus on techniques that enhance neighborly places. The grid is proven to encourage people to stroll.

• Kevin: The grid is inherently a democratic device. it was promoted in the spirit of Jefferson's desire for citizen farmers.

• Kevin: Bill and Howard are promoting plans that are aristocratic.

• Kevin: Grids are inherently affordable, less expensive on all fronts, and they don't require great architecture to succeed.

• Kevin: The most important element is block size, not street right-of-way.

Great American Grid Debate Q&A session

• Bill Q: Kevin, how committed are you to mediocre and bad architecture?

• Kevin: I have great faith in the mediocrity in most of my architect colleagues!

• Paul: The grid isn't just used by greedy developers. William Penn used it to express the virtue of equality.

• Kevin: Most things that frustrate us about the built environment is not the grid, but the implementation of what's built.

• Kevin: The grid that Jefferson created is a uniquely American phenomenon, and the most walkable places are usually gridded.

• Howard: The grid wasn't about urbanism; it was about efficient land subdivision.

• Howard: I don't think the high point of America was 1787; I hope we're still moving toward it.

• Howard: Even in San Francisco, you get into the city because of the interruptions in the several grids.

   I made the following comment in the subsequent Q&A: "New Urbanists love to design "cranky streets," but they're not getting it right. Most New Urbanist cranky streets crank by 6° to 15°, but those cranks look more like a right-angle turn when you're approaching from the distance. The cranky streets in the old towns that we appreciate most usually crank 0.5° to 1.5°… beautiful on the ground, but almost imperceptible on a plan. The problem is that we feel pressure to design sexy plans. We need to detach ourselves from the romance of the plan, and care about the romance of the place."

The Western Grid, Applications for the Future

   Howard and Kevin next joined joined Christopher Duerksen and Matt Lambert (moderated by Lee Sobel) for a more scholarly discussion of the grid. Mr. Duerksen, an attorney, was expert on issues of solar access, while the other three panelists fell firmly on the side of great streetscapes first.

   I'm worried that this might grow into a bigger issue, and while I'm sympathetic to solar power, it should not be the trump card. Gizmos alone are not the solution, as any reader of this blog has read many times. There are two problems with oppressive solar access:

• The images Mr. Duerksen showed of places built to rigorous solar access standards look dreadful. All the buildings lined up like soldiers with photovoltaic roof acne. This is unacceptable. When there are solar panels or photovoltaics, they must be designed with the rest of the building to be lovable.

• Cutting down street trees for solar access in a warm climate means people simply won't walk. And when people don't get out, they don't get conditioned to the local environment and start living in season. Nothing we can do has a bigger impact than creating great outdoor public and private realms that entice people outdoors because when they get conditioned, they can leave the equipment off for much of the year when they return indoors. There is no piece of equipment so efficient as that which is off.

2013 Charter Awards

2013 Charter Awards ceremony

   Kudos to Doug Farr and the members of the jury who revitalized the Charter Awards this year. Everything from the way the jury dressed at the awards ceremony (black & top hats) to the multimedia presentation of the projects to the re-branding of the awards (Global Award for Excellence in Urban Design) this definitely didn't feel like last year. And because they're serious about the "global" part, look for future awards that expand horizons of what New Urbanism is as far-flung projects with radically different regional conditions, climate, and culture find different ways of building sustainably.

Charter of the New Urbanism, Second Edition

   Emily Talen was honored at the end of the Charter Awards ceremony for her herculean effort in putting together the totally-revamped Charter, which was the work of 62 authors. I'm honored to be one of them. Yes, the Original Green is now in the Charter!

The Peery Hotel

scene at the Peery Hotel, a swap-fest of the latest ideas

   Andrés Duany reserved the entire Peery Hotel, not just as a place for colleagues to stay, but as a place to discuss and debate the latest issues. The problem with the official Congress is that it has to be set up almost a year beforehand to get all the speakers and continuing education credit lined up. So it's impossible that the latest ideas can be discussed at the Congress. The public spaces of the Peery (the bar, the restaurant, and the meeting room) are being used each evening after official Congress events are wrapped up to solve this problem by providing a marketplace of idea-swapping between anyone who stops by.

Walk Appeal

Dan Slone’s lecture-turned-debate with Andrés Duany

   I presented the latest version of Walk Appeal at the Peery hotel. I followed a presentation by Rick Hall on transportation issues which in turn followed a raucous presentation by Dan Slone. Andrés Duany turned Dan's presentation into a debate across half a room, with lots of good-natured shouting and gesticulation.

NextGen Debates

NextGen debate at the Peery Hotel

   Chuck Marohn set up a series of debates on behalf of NextGen that was completely hilarious. But the levity did a curious thing: because the scene was indiscernible from a comedy club show, it allowed exploration of subject matter not so often discussed amongst New Urbanists… because they just might be kidding. This is of great value, and the format should definitely be used long into the future.

   ~Steve Mouzon


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CNU21 Duany's Thursday Morning Plenary

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Andrés Duany and the crowd at Thursday morning plenary at CNU21 in Salt Lake City

   Andrés Duany led off Thursday morning at CNU21 by laying out a far-ranging view of what the near future needs to look like, and what we can do to get there. Here's a selection of my tweets from that session:

• CNU has now held 10 more congresses than CIAM.

• CNU's great conflicts have always been conflicts of ideas, not conflicts of territory.

• LEED, while powerful, has become a dinosaur. It can barely move.

• I was for establishing standards; Dan Solomon was always against it, and he won. 3 years ago, I told Dan "we could have been LEED"

• Now, looking at how ossified LEED is, I say "thank you Dan Solomon for paralyzing my argument!!"

view across the crowd as Andrés Duany delivers the Thursday morning plenary at CNU21 in Salt Lake City

• Duany, to Edward Erfurt early this morning: "I don't think this talk is coming together." Edward: "Good. We need talks like that."

• Landscape Urbanism and Harvard have set themselves up as "not the New Urbanism."

• You're not a New Urbanist if you haven't read the Charter.

• Emily Talen said: "the New Urbanism is intrinsically top-down and bottom-up."

• The New Urbanism is the Charter and the charrette. Principles and practice. It has never been combined like this before.

• Urban Land has become a New Urbanist publication. Why do we need one when they do such a good job?

• The New Urbanism forges ideas, and others take them up. And that's the way it should be.

• We don't worry about taking credit; we want to see the work get done.

• We knew the greatest beast we had to enter as a virus was environmentalism. We didn't know how technocratic it would be.

• The virus is now inside the beast, but unfortunately, the beast is infecting the virus.

• New Urbanism could become just like 1000 other environmental organizations, and we don't need 1001.

• Becoming just another environmental organization would make the New Urbanism completely irrelevant.

• Nature was about beauty until about 1900, when it became scientific.

• The American environmental movement is the only environmental system in the world that doesn't include humans.

• American environmentalism began with the national parks. Every human that enters degrades the ideal.

• Defining humans as being outside nature leads to draconian environmental laws.

• No European environmentalism could ever say "you can't build on the hills," or in the woods, or near the river.

• American environmentalists say Times Square is horrible, but it hosts millions of visitors who aren't in Yellowstone bothering the bears.

• New Urbanism works to build places so enticing that people will willingly choose to live compactly and efficiently in the city rather than ruining the countryside.

• Nature doesn't care so much whether rainwater enters the aquifer here or a mile down; it doesn't hurt the little water molecules.

• We do not polemicize the visual green. If we did, you can't build Charleston again.

• If an ideology won't let Charleston be built again, I cannot condone it.

Chuck Marohn interviewing Edward
Erfurt after CNU21 Thursday morning plenary session

Chuck Marohn interviewing Edward

Erfurt after the plenary

• You cannot achieve the extraordinary reward of street life by Landscape Urbanism, except by using PhotoShop.

• It's not our fault that New Urbanism becomes too expensive; that simply means there's not enough of it yet.

• "Locally widespread but nationally rare": environmental parlor trick for protecting species that are plentiful.

• American environmentalism is perpetually the overlord and the underdog.

• New Urbanists study success wherever it occurs.

• We know Portland's small blocks are good and Salt Lake City's big blocks are bad, right? look deeper, and we need both.

• The problem with Salt Lake City is that it's not today what Joseph Smith and Brigham Young had in mind.

• The problem with Salt Lake City today is that the original grid was infected with the DNA of sprawl.

• Nature doesn't begin as primal forest; New York didn't begin with 100-story buildings.

• The problem with the New Urbanism over the past 10 years was that we were bitten by the bug of financial protocols.

• Make many small successional deals, not one big deal.

• We absolutely need to deliver town centers at the beginning - the inaugural condition is a single-story town center.

• Everything of the New Urbanism in its first decade was incubated. we must restore that.

• Seaside has a comprehensive set of green measures, but they were all done because they were cheaper.

• "Environmentalism costs more, but it pays for itself in 8 years" is utterly biased to high-tech.

• High-tech environmentalism is absolutely going to crash. The Original Green will replace it.

• Code-writing was the least cool of the uncool, but those incredibly lean early New Urbanist codes were glamorous.

• Fat codes are bad because you can't amortize small projects.

• why has NextGen become tactical? Because they can't get things done through today's code burden. So they bypass them.

• The last act of the first generation of New Urbanists should be to deliver a world where the young can operate.

• Centuries do not begin when 00 clicks. The 20th century lasted until the real estate bubble of 2008.

OpenSource Congress sessions at the end of Thursday morning plenary at CNU21

OpenSource Congress sessions made up the last half of the plenary

• The real estate bubble. Peak oil. Climate change. All of this happened at the same time. It didn't have to… nothing tied them together… but it did anyway.

• The real estate bubble revealed the economic limits of the US permanently. Essentially, we're broke.

• It's not about oil running out. It's that energy is going to hereafter be more expensive.

• The problem with climate change is that it's so slow-motion, but there's a pall that we have lost the war.

• When people are depressed, they lose their idealism, but we can turn all of these problems into virtues.

• We can turn these into virtues, pleasures, joys, and meaningful things IF we avoid getting infected by the pall.

• We have to say that sustainability is adapting to the circumstances.

• The Now Urbanism

• Architects have no hope of achieving the Vernacular Mind; it's been engineered out of them.

• A new century. Protean CNU. Viruses & Membranes. The Vernacular Mind. Subsidiarity Process. Successional Growth.

• Interim Buildings. Light Green Tech. Pink Codes. Flexbuildings. Pod Practices.

• The SmartCode has flaws because it plugs into the existing system.

• CNU is based on the genetics of CIAM: separate firms pulling together to create a movement.

• If you get along, you're not noticed. The New Urbanism was noticed by ITE and ULI because we caused them problems.

• Adaptation has no friends and is in bad odor because it's considered to be giving up, but it's what will work, and what will give us hope.

• "Copyright - Use Without Permission" that's what we do to prevent our materials from being copyrighted against us.

• Lean Engineering = the Original Green.

• Let us rediscover real engineering that allowed the cities of the West to be built with little money.

• Lean Engineering = Light Imprint.

• Lean = the Subsidiarity Process.

• Subsidiarity: person-family-street face-block-neighborhood-municipality-state-nation-UN. 

Decision should be made at smallest scale at which it makes sense.

• Today's true avant-garde isn't doing frivolous buildings, but rather lean ones.

• The model that's crashing next are the architecture schools.

• I hire people because of the firms they've worked in, not the schools they've gone to.

• We should self-certify the graduates of our firms.

   ~Steve Mouzon

PS: Here are my upcoming sessions… please come!

Original Green Hope for Architecture (with Clay Chapman): Tonight at 8:30 PM at the Peery Hotel

Agrarian Urbanism and the Mormon Block: Saturday at 10:45 AM, Grand Ballroom BC

Art Room: Design Techniques for Charrettes: Saturday at 2 PM, Murano room

CNU21 Day 1 Recap

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Grand America hotel lit under the clouds as evening descends on the first night of CNU21 in Salt Lake City

   I'm doing a CNU21 session Saturday on Agrarian Urbanism and the Mormon Grid, and I'm also participating in the Salt Lake City Interrotta, which examines the things you can do with the Mormon Grid, which is an enormous 660' on each side. Unfortunately, I hadn't even begun the drawing below, which is central to both events, before arriving. So I spent the first eight hours of the Congress camped out next to NextGen's Engaging the Plat of Zion jam session that explored the Mormon Grid as well. Please stop by Saturday at 10:45 AM in Grand Ballroom BC for the Agrarian Urbanism and the Mormon Block session!


   I got the drawing printed and taped it onto the Interrotta boards as the sole late entry just in time for the opening plenary, which was excellent. Keynote speaker Richard Louv wrote Last Child in the Woods. The following are selected tweets from my tweet-cast of Richard's presentation:

• We give community associations power we would never consider giving to government. Even the color of your curtains is regulated.

• A community association in Florida actually banned children playing outdoors.

• Access to nature is exceptionally important to child development.

• I'm much more interested in nearby nature than the wilderness.

• People who once knew nature never lose what nature taught them, even in the densest of cities.

• Kids' time in nature has decreased 50% since the 1990s.

• For all of human history until now, kids have spent most of their waking hours in nature.

• Child abductions have been decreasing for 30 years, but you'd never know it by watching the news media.

• Preschoolers are the fastest-growing segment of the population in antidepressant use.

• Studies have shown that health metrics of people who sit for long periods of time are very close to those of smokers. Sitting is the new smoking. Especially for our kids.

• Studies have shown that the ability to learn goes up with contact with nature.

• Run on a treadmill and get healthier. Run outdoors (green exercise) doing the exact same mileage and get even healthier.

• Nature Deficit Disorder is a malady our kids have been increasingly suffering from for several decades now.

• There are many child maladies for which pediatricians should be prescribing nature.

• You don't get a bigger constituency by talking in acronyms, or just to each other.

• Environmentalism is in trouble. We need a new nature movement. Today's average environmentalist is 67 years old.

• A young hipster told me "All my life I've been told it's too late for the environment." New Urbanism says it's not too late.

CNU21’s venue, Salt Lake City’s Grand America Hotel, glowing golden in last rays of sunset with rainbow behind set against clouds of the receding storm

• As of 2008 more people on earth live in cities than the countryside. This is a huge moment, and largely unremarked in the news media.

• William McDonough: "Environmentalism says: your carbon footprint is too big. The unspoken implication is that: "We'd be better off without you." That's no way to sell an idea!"

• William McDonough: "Sustainability isn't good enough, because it just means keeping things going like they are. Do you just want a sustainable marriage? Don't you want something better? Not just carbon neutral."

• The new nature movement is one that brings life.

   I walked back toward the Peery Hotel with Tim Halbur for the evening debates, but neither of us had eaten, so we stopped in to the Market Street Cafe for a quick (we thought) dinner. Several of our New Urbanist colleagues were just arriving, so we got a big table. Just after ordering, someone on the other side of the street said "wow, look at that!" We all turned around, gaping at the scene above. The Grand America Hotel three blocks away where the Congress was being held, was bathed in sunset light, set off by a stunning rainbow laid against a dark sky thick with clouds. A good omen for a great Congress!

   ~Steve Mouzon

PS: Here are my upcoming sessions… please come!

Walk Appeal: Tonight at 8 PM at the Peery Hotel

Barranco Award presentation: Tomorrow at 9 AM at the start of the morning plenary

Original Green Hope for Architecture (with Clay Chapman): Tomorrow at 8:30 PM at the Peery Hotel

Agrarian Urbanism and the Mormon Block: Saturday at 10:45 AM, Grand Ballroom BC

Art Room: Design Techniques for Charrettes: Saturday at 2 PM, Murano room


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Skeuomorphism - How Steve Jobs Hit What Walter Gropius Missed - But Now, Is Apple Throwing Its Soul Away?

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Apple logo

   How has Apple seduced millions while Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus left those same millions cold? Steve Jobs' passion for simplicity was legendary, and his esteem of minimalist Bauhaus design was immense, but Apple products are loved by masses around the world, while the Bauhaus is loved only by design geeks. What's the difference?

   Simply put, Steve knew the difference between body and spirit, and Gropius didn't. Hardware is the body of a computer, while software (and more precisely, the user interface) is the spirit. There's no dispute that a body (whether human or machine) should be as lean as possible… but no leaner. In other words, low body fat but no anorexia. I remember the first time I held an iPod… its design seemed impossibly lean, but after less than a minute of turning the wheel and pushing the button, the question was "what else do you need?" So minimalist design is an indisputable virtue of hardware design.

Macintosh address book screen shot

    Minimalism was a religion to Gropius; a creed to be applied to everything from buildings to typography. To Steve, it was a powerful tool to be used everywhere it makes sense. What Steve implicitly knew that Gropius and most minimalists since him have completely missed is the fact that a minimal spirit is rarely a lovable spirit. 

   And so Steve imbued the spirit (user interface) of all his Apple creations with lovable characteristics on many levels. That lovable interface began by setting people at ease with their machines by using ideas with which they were familiar and comfortable.

   Apple designed things like a calendar icon that looks like a paper calendar, print icons that look like printers, and a note pad application that looks like a yellow note pad. Even the "desktop" itself that is the core of the Mac user interface was originally designed to look like a physical desktop. I call this "allegorical design" because the pixels on the screen are telling a story (an allegory) of something else that people are familiar with. Apple has used allegorical design to great effect for years to make its computers "friendly," as Steve often said.

iBooks screen shot

   It's not just that allegorical design is "friendly;" it's also highly efficient. Unless you're an experienced computer user, you might not know what a "directory" is, but everyone knows exactly what a "folder" is and how to use it. And while everyone using a computer is assumed to be able to read, it's still quicker to look for an icon that looks like a printer than to look for the word "print."

   Minimalist design geeks make the mistake of lumping allegorical design into a larger term with a dark side: "skeuomorphism." Skeuomorphic design is the design of one thing to look like something else. It can be powerful, like Apple's desktop, folders, and note pad, but skeuomorphism can also be cheesy, like fake wood-grain panels on 1970's station wagons. Today, the charge of skeuomorphism is a high insult in most design circles. Even the word itself sounds nasty, like some terrible intestinal disease you might get in the tropics.

Mac Notes screen shot

   Today, skeuomorphism is under full attack at Apple. Jony Ive, Apple's awesome hardware design wizard, was handed the keys to the user interface kingdom at Apple last fall. Unfortunately, it appears that Jony, like so many minimalists before him, doesn't understand the difference between body and spirit, either. And so he's reportedly delaying the release of iOS 7 so that he can stamp out all vestiges of skeuomorphism. Amputating allegorical design in the skeuomorphism witch hunt just may rip the soul out of Apple stuff because what are you left with after you remove the allegories that have made Apple stuff so lovable for so long?

   Apple stuff seduced us (until now) with bodies that were lean but spirits that were warm. Lean bodies and warm spirits are seductive, even sexy. A minimal spirit can't seduce. It can't even be understood unless you go to school to learn how to appreciate it. Saying "go to school" is no way to seduce someone. The inability to seduce leads to sterility… a frequent charge by non-design-geeks against Bauhaus architecture. Jony and Apple should urgently re-learn why Steve hit what Gropius missed… or run the risk of sterility themselves.

   ~Steve Mouzon

© The Guild Foundation 2013