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Books

The Nature of Urban Design: A New York Perspective on Resilience
Alexandros Washburn
Island Press, 2013
Reviewed by Steven J. Brittan Assoc. AIA

In the wake of the abrupt arrival of climate change, wreaking unimaginable havoc on our cities, Alex Washburn writes his book on resilience and urban design. Sparked, it seems, by his personal encounter with Hurricane Sandy flooding his building in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Washburn provides up-to-the- minute observations of the damage and process of cleanup and repair that followed. This book reads as part diary of the author's life experience (he is chief urban designer for New York City), part almanac for the novice urban designer, and part guide for what major cities such as New York should be doing—not just to adapt, but to prepare for the next storm. Daily reminders of hurricanes, flooding, and drought at a global and local level leave us with no other choice than to think of self-preservation. In Washburn's view, we haven't even begun to master sustainability, so our ability to be resilient is made even more difficult. Resiliency can be understood as a kind of shock absorber, and even a way to bounce back. Our fragile state has spurred numerous responses at social, political, and environmental levels, all aiming to slow humanity's carbon footprint and regain some form of equilibrium.

javascript:void(0)Washburn notes that urban designers do not design cities—rather they design the tools that change cities. These are in the form of "rules," "plans," and "pilot projects" that have the potential to transform whole neighborhoods. More than once, Manhattan's High Line is cited as an example. New York City is Washburn's laboratory of urban design and a model of resiliency for being global and coastal, despite boasting a carbon footprint measuring almost 50 million tons of greenhouse gases.

The city's memorable history and transformation is made possible by what Washburn affectionately calls his "three bosses and the greatest urban designers" in New York: Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses, and Frederick Law Olmsted. Washburn deftly weaves in their past ideologies and skills, and ponders what they might have done today in the face of climate change.

So, what are the lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy? What are specific examples that urban design offers us to make us more resilient? Washburn offers current strategies such as mitigation (changing our behavior to consume less) and adaptation (protective measures to reduce our vulnerabilities based on risk). Increasing density, improving mobility, mass transit, and maintaining open space are all tools of mitigation, as is making buildings not just reduce energy but replace it.

Three tactics for adaptation are offered: fortification (hardening the edges), resilience (to bend but not break), and retreat (moving out of harm's way). He uses examples from all over the world, including Istanbul, where neighborhoods have built-in flood plains; or Kibera, a neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya, where waste and composted sewage is converted into new soccer fields; or HafenCity, the district in Hamburg, where building lobbies are built one floor up in areas prone to flooding.

Near the end of this richly illustrated guide, Washburn returns to his home in Red Hook, designing his apartment to a new height to adapt to flooding. Ironically, he runs up against government bureaucracy when requesting necessary approvals to improve his building's resiliency. The underlying theme of the book is that the application of urban design principles entwined with "civic virtue" will ultimately solve many of the problems of climate change and make cities more livable. It offers an educa-tional framework of the complexity of urban design, how to "crack open the status quo," and help manage change in an increasingly unpredictable world.

Steven J. Brittan ASSOC. AIA is a principal at Sasaki Associates, where he is focused on the integration of technology and design.


Animal Architecture
Ingo Arndt (photographs) and Jurgen Tautz (text) Harry N. Abrams, 2014
Reviewed by Genevieve Rajewski

Those interested in biomimicry—the science of looking to nature to inspire inventions—like to consider how the "technology of biology" can be applied for human purposes. Through a collection of stunning photographs, Animal Architecture invites readers to instead simply marvel at how nonhuman animals design and build to meet their own ends. Ingo Arndt—an internationally renowned nature photographer for National Geographic,GEO, and BBC Wildlife—went to considerable lengths to illuminate the complexity and functionality of constructions by birds, insects, arachnids, rodents, corals, bivalves, and snails. As his entertaining endnotes reveal, he shot red ants outside his front door, built a leafy hut to camouflage his work among bowerbirds in West Papua, Indonesia, and waded waist-deep into a beaver pond at Yellowstone National Park. He also shot from helicopters and planes, as well as against a classic black backdrop in the studio. The result is a truly impressive range, one that's often hard to believe is the work of a single photographer.

Arndt's minutely detailed studio portraits of birds' nests reveal the unexpected patterns, textures, and shapes achievable with the use of humble materials such as reeds, grass, clay, and even electrical scraps. Those who care about designers as much as their creations will relish the insider's view of the animal architects in action, either at work building or enjoying the fruits of their labor. Other pictures put some of the larger structures in context: for example, showing expansive landscapes dotted with the 10-foot towers of the compass termite. The most successful sections of the book combine these aspects to give a multidimensional look at the creators and their brand of architecture. An obvious assumption about animal architecture is that, as photog-rapher Jim Brandenberg writes in the foreword, "form follows function" and there's "no need to express beyond practicality." However, Arndt's photos reveal that some species besides humans also incorporate materials that serve a decorative purpose. To lure their mates, male gray bowerbirds in Australia artfully weave an elaborate arbor from sticks and then tile its floor with snail shells, pebbles, and other ornamental objects. And in western New Guinea, male Vogelkop gardener bowerbirds likewise build towering arbors, then go wild with color— decorating their yards with flowers, fruits, mosses, and even human- discarded items such as soda cans.

This book shows that humans hardly have the market cornered on building technologies. Termites construct an elaborate system of ducts and chimneys that exhausts dirty air and imports fresh air for pristine indoor air quality. And Passive House practitioners will appreciate how compass termites build their 10-foot flat-sided towers in precise north-south orientation to capitalize on the sun's position throughout the day for heating and cooling. Those interested in building enclosures will marvel at how red wood ants construct virtual skyscrapers that offer complete moisture protection and ideal indoor temper-atures across seasons.

The book's one shortcoming is that it illuminates just a taste of so many other species' architectural achieve-ments. However, the photographer and author team has portrayed these constructions and their designers so respectfully that the reader is left wanting a much larger volume dedicated to the commonality of design among all living things. The lasting impression is how human and nonhuman animals alike can all build to protect themselves from the elements, create optimal indoor universes for their families, and even fulfill a fundamental desire for beauty.  And, as Brandenberg wisely notes in his foreword, craftsmanship is what makes the difference between success and failure.

Genevieve Rajewski is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers animals, science, nature, and more for national magazines and newspapers.


Aluminum Dreams: The Making of Light Modernity Mimi Sheller MIT Press, 2014
Reviewed by Jennifer Weeks

Aluminum is everywhere in our daily lives: It is used in cars, airplanes, electrical transmission systems, packaging, appliances, consumer goods, and modern buildings. Many well-known Boston office buildings feature aluminum components, from the Federal Reserve Plaza to Fumihiko Maki's expanded headquarters for the mit Media Lab. Aluminum mullions support glass window panels in the curtainwalls of countless postwar office buildings, including the John Hancock tower.

In Aluminum Dreams, Drexel University sociologist Mimi Sheller tells the story of this lightweight metal and shows how corpora­tions have marketed it as a symbol of speed, lightness, and progress. She also describes aluminum's darker side—the heavy environ­mental impacts of bauxite mining and hydropower development. (Many rivers have been dammed in the United States and elsewhere to provide the huge quantities of power needed for aluminum smelting.) In her words, aluminum is "a superficially lightweight topic with a surprisingly heavy history." Aluminum's ubiquity reflects its useful qualities. It is lighter than many other metals; extremely malleable; conducts heat, cold, and electricity well; and resists corrosion. When two 23-year-old researchers (one French, one American) simultaneously discovered an electrolytic process for smelting aluminum from bauxite ore in 1886, they triggered a shift from the first industrial revolution—powered by coal, iron, and steam—to a second industrial revolution based on electricity; lightweight metals; and later, plastics and synthetic fibers. Sheller calls this new age "light modernity."

Using commercial ads, Sheller shows how large companies such as Alcoa, Bohn, and Kaiser marketed aluminum goods as symbols of a bright future where things were smooth, fast, and streamlined. Some products that date back as far as the 1930s have become icons of 20th-century design, from Airstream trailers to consumer goods like rounded toasters and school lunch boxes. In the 1960s and '70s, consumer interest waned, and mass-produced goods such as aluminum siding came to be seen as artificial and disposable.

But now aluminum is resurging. Design magazines such as Dwell have revived the idea of prefab housing, and many green buildings contain aluminum components, which are recyclable and typically contain a high fraction of recycled content. The embodied energy savings in aluminum components help builders earn LEED points.

But Sheller also surveys the global effects of bauxite mining and smelting. Key supplier countries such as Jamaica, Suriname, Guinea, and India have struggled to win royalty payments and benefits from multinational companies. Indigenous communities have been displaced for mines and dam construc­tion. Mined-out areas are marked by "deforested mountains and lakes of red mud." Today Guinea is one of the world's largest bauxite producers and also one of the world's poorest countries.

With this record, is aluminum really a green material? On one hand, it reduces weight in cars and planes, which saves fuel. It also is recyclable: Producing new items from recycled aluminum uses only about 5 percent of the energy required to make them from virgin material. But many aluminum products are not recycled, and Sheller argues that the industry's continuing investments in primary mining and smelting are far larger than the resources companies devote to recycling.

Sheller's conclusions are fairly obvious: Modern societies should use fewer resources, recycle more of them, and pay more attention to the effects of resource extraction. Her writing can be clunky, and she creates a choppy effect by overusing quotations for information that could be paraphrased. Despite these flaws, Aluminum Dreams is a timely look at a material that is pervasive in our lives. For maximum impact, read it on your MacBook Air or iPhone—made with recycled aluminum.

Jennifer Weeks is a freelance journalist in Watertown, Massachusetts, who writes about the environment, science, and health.