Return to site

A Tale of Two Cities

· architecture,urban planning,transportation

When we remember a city, we mainly remember its art, the wondrous buildings, the awe-inspiring architecture, its innovative urban planning and its spectacular monuments. Ancient Egypt had the mysterious pyramids of Giza, which have eluded archaeologists and scientists for centuries about the nature of how they were constructed; the vast libraries of Ancient Rome have left a legacy of thought onto contemporary society and buildings such as the Parthenon in Greece with its careful attention to detail, and slight modifications of its beams makes it appear as if it is being elevated into the sky.

The Parthenon in Greece has been studied by architects for decades into the construction of its intricate design. Each column was sized differently to give the illusion that the building was rising towards the sky instead of sinking into the ground.

In addition, the sewage systems of Ancient Rome have been used by our contemporary society to move bodies of water across cities; the cathedrals of Italy have been the study and backdrop of many Hollywood films; and despite that the cities of Berlin, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed and relentlessly bombed in WWII, the cities have re-emerged as landmark urban planning powerhouses, with Berlin becoming an architect's ideal playground for modernist architecture, and Nagasaki and Hiroshima exhibiting its playful, experimental architecture.

The Ribbon Chapel in Hiroshima, Japan. After the city was devastated by the atomic bomb in WWII, Hiroshima

re-surfaced as an experimental architectural design centre with the govt and many corporations investing in the infrastructure of the city.

European and Japanese architects have always been forward thinking; they build things to last and often plan ten years ahead of what they will build, and how they will shape their cities. This is something that has encapsulated the landscape of cities like London, Tokyo, Basel, Antwerp, Berlin.

Former Chancellor George Osborne is the brainchild behind the Northern Powerhouse Project, a long term economic plan to revitalise the northern cities of England.

One of the legacies of former Prime Minister David Cameron and former Chancellor George Osborne is the Northern Powerhouse Project, the U.K. govt's plan to boost economic growth by building new transportation links via the Northern Powerhouse Rail, and investment in science, innovation, architecture, urban planning and of course, modernising the infrastructure of the northern cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield, which were previously centres for manufacturing and coal mining at the turn of the century. In 2015, Mr. Cameron accounced that the Northern Powerhouse Project would be backed by China, and plans were developed for the Chinese Cluster project at the Manchester Airport and a further £800m would be invested as a joint business development between British and Chinese companies. Another competition was announced to host the Great Exhibition of the North in 2018, as towns and cities across the North East, North West and Yorkshire were invited to showcase the best of art, culture and design.

Currently, the city of London is also building its highest residential skyscraper in Canary Wharf which is projected to be finished by 2020. It will be 67 storeys high and valued in excess of £800 million. The project is being lead by Chinese property developer Greenland Group, and will be the same height as Canary Wharf's highest skyscraper, One Canada Square.

Let's hope that the project won't turn out to be a debacle such as San Francisco's Millennium Tower, a 58 storey residential condominium tower which was built from 2004-2009. I remember I was in San Francisco during parts of the construction phase after my I finished my M.A. degree in 2005, and not only was it an outrageous and loud eyesore then, it is still an appalling eyesore now. It is a lackluster, generic looking high tower, and despite garnering 9 prestigious awards by the American Society of Civil Engineers, California Construction's Outstanding Project Management Award, and San Francisco Chamber of Commerce Excellence in Business Awards, it was revealed just last month that the building is sinking and substantially leaning to one side, revealing its structural deficiencies. Why is it sinking? The answer is very simple, the architecture and engineering team cut corners and the Millennium's engineers anchored the building over a thick concrete slab with piles driven into 80 feet into dense sand as opposed to drilling piles into more secure bedrock, to save costs.

The 58-storey Millennium Tower in San Francisco. One side of the building is visibly lifting off the ground and leaning towards the other side. It was revealed this year that the building is rapidly sinking into the ground due to the engineers' "cost-cutting" methods of having built the structure into a slab of concrete in sand instead of bedrock. When the construction was first finished in 2009, the Millennium Tower won numerous awards for its design and engineering.

This kind of "cutting corners" measure in Californian urban planning and engineering has probably been in effect since post-WWII, when it became normal to erect temporary buildings not made to last, and everything was built cheaply and quickly, often using cheaper alternatives that have later been discovered to be toxins. California schools and buildings resemble temporary bomb shelters rather than places that are suppose to inspire the next generation of thinkers and innovators. However what is especially disturbing is the way some of these Californian developers have a philosophy of cheap building methodologies that actually have more severe consequences.

Last summer, in June 2015, six Irish students on a summer exchange died from a balcony collapse on Kittredge Street in a relatively newly built condominium building in my hometown of Berkeley, California. The students were having a normal party, and several of them went out in the balcony, when suddenly it gave away, killing six students who were studying for the summer at UC Berkeley. There were seven survivors from the incident and one paralysed from a broken spinal cord. The developer who constructed the building didn't build proper support for the balcony in order to "save costs".  In response, a representative of the building said that the balcony "wasn't for hanging out, it was really designed for one person to occasionally take a breath of fresh air for a few minutes".

Six Irish exchange students died and seven were severely injured from a collapsed balcony in Berkeley, California last summer. The balconies had no structural support either on the sides or underneath the balcony due to cost-cutting measures. Surprisingly, this style and design is reflective of contemporary condos built all throughout California.

The more disturbing fact is that this condo was built in a style and design that has popped up all over California. The company, Segue Construction was fined, but it was actually designed by Thomas P. Cox Architects of Irvine, California; in a "cost-cutting" design that is ubiquitous with California style condos. As one can see from their portfolio, they have designed similar buildings without any patio support in their construction as evidenced by this residential building in Los Angeles. 

The U.K. does not skimp on development and many award-winning architects are given contracts to design both residential and commercial buildings. All balconies in U.K. developments are typically reinforced with steel.

Most residential buildings in the U.K. have multiple support structures for their balconies, to prevent a potential collapse.

Balcony of a condo in Surrey. The balcony has multiple support structures, and is reinforced by steel beams underneath.

In a typical residential development in the U.K., one can see that buildings usually have multiple structural support of its balconies, either on both sides of the balcony, or via steel beams underneath. London's architectural and construction development firms usually don't have the "cutting corners" mentality of its San Francisco and Berkeley neighbours across the ocean. The U.K. is known for its world-renowned architects (to the extent that U.S. corporations such as Google and Apple often award British architects to design their new buildings as opposed to American architects) and Britain isn't known to skimp on the design and development of its landscape.

The U.K. govt is spending £500m to get rid of these power cable eyesores built in the 1950s in all of their parks and countrysides and to move them "underground" to prevent a visual disturbance in the landscape. The reason why the U.K. does not have visible power cables in their cities is that the govt actively invested in moving them underground whereas, in nations such as the U.S., they used "cost-cutting" measures to simply put them up overhead.

In fact, in 2014, the U.K. govt even invested £500m to remove the biggest and "ugliest" power cable lines across all of its beautiful countrysides. The National Grid will remove these pylons and move them underground- to retain the natural beauty of its landscape without the sight of this "visual noise" and will spend more than £10bln on new transmission lines by 2021. The "mistakes" of 1950s U.S. urban planning will not be repeated again in Britain as these kinds of chaotic power cables in the sky that are so reminiscent of cities like San Francisco, possess a serious eyesore to sensitive British aesthetics.

San Francisco. The city did not invest in "undergrounding" their power and utility cables- leading to a chaotic mess of cables in the visual landscape which Europeans refer to as "visual noise".

In comparison, San Francisco is known for its chaotic power cables that criss-cross every which way that interferes with the view of the sky. To be fair, the entire Bay Area and Silicon Valley are located on a fault line, and prone to earthquakes, so it might not be feasible to have power cables underground; however, since San Francisco has an underground Muni and Bart, and LA has an underground subway, I don't see a problem with "undergrounding" a system of developing power cables underneath. Although it is initially expensive to invest in this type of infrastructure, the long-term value multiples over decades. However, the U.S. govt rarely spends any on the development of its landscape; rather, the U.S. govt is primarily infamously known for spending more on its defense fund than on its infrastructure, and any attempts by politicians to beautify a landscape or even build a high speed rail are often derided and or made a laughing stock. (i.e. California Governor Jerry Brown's plans to build a high speed rail from SF to LA was shot down by numerous proponents who called the project "too expensive"). 

Anyone who has lived in Los Angeles will tell you that their roads and highways are a horrific apostasy to civilisation. Every street and freeway is marred with potholes, and the city never seems to have any funds to fix them, yet will go on mad ticketing sprees to issue and fine everyone for incorrect parking. However, the penny-pinching Californian urban development mentality can be accurately depicted by San Francisco, a city that likes to build things cheaply and quickly (e.g. Millennium Tower), purports a "lean" production mentality at their startups and even many of the workers in the city do not seem to realise that the unicorn companies they work for have created a poverty domino effect, increasing the city's homeless population.

California Governor Jerry Brown has been for several years trying to approve the building of a high speed rail across California but has been mocked in the media by various opponents who criticise the project as "too expensive" whilst lobbyists are supporting the car manufacturing industries that want everyone to own an autonomous car.

It's difficult to admit that a place where one has grown up is rapidly deteriorating via "cost-cutting" measures. It's difficult to admit that all the places of one's youth is slowly being replaced by condos that are meant to maximise profit via "cost-cutting" measures. There are hardly any historical buildings left in California- it's about demolition, building things quickly and cheaply and short-term profit in lean methodology with the erection of numerous ugly condos all over the state. It's difficult to admit that a place that has so many memories for me is a place where a wanton lack of urban planning and investment in its infrastructure may become its very demise in comparison to the cities in other nations that are actively investing in the future. However, my hope for California is that one day, major corporations won't band together to stop development of innovative transport links and will find a revenue model away from car ownership.

Typical traffic on a California highway. Lyft co-founder John Zimmer in Medium said recently that all services by the car-hailing company will be via autonomous cars in 5 years. He hopes that this will curb car ownership, but the more likely scenario is that since many auto manufacturing companies are investing in autonomous cars, that this will increase car ownership within that time frame, putting more cars on the road than ever before due to California's lack of transport links and exponentially growing population.

In comparison, China has begun testing its Transport Elevated Bus (TEB) last month (Aug 2016) in Qinhuangdao, northern Hebei Province, an overhead bus that moves over regular traffic in response to a growing population dependent on cars.

Softbank founder Masayoshi Son once said at a Recode Conference that he couldn't believe how people in the U.S. could live with such slow internet connection. "How can a country that is credited with the founding of the internet not be aware that they are behind the rest of world in internet connectivity?" he said. My fear is that he will then say, "How can a nation like the U.S. have such outdated modes of transportation when the rest of the world has moved onto ultra modern transport links?" at the next conference. The rest of the world is actively investing in its cities, building high tech transportation links, modernising the infrastructure of its cities, building green energy plants whilst the United States has been actively preventing innovation in much needed transport links in their cities, and singularly focused on the development of its autonomous vehicles and building "cost-cutting" residential condos and high rise towers for short-term profit. Many Brits think about moving to San Francisco to receive funding or to relocate their company, believing the grass is greener. I say to them, think again.

All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!