Reorienting Transit Disoriented Development (Part 1)

Rating tools like LEED in the US, or Green Star in Australia, do not adequately penalise buildings for high energy consumption related to transport. In transit oriented development (TOD) contexts, treating transportation as a minor component makes sense. Buildings within walking distance of good public transport, are already doing a lot to minimise energy-use related to travel, so naturally call for scrutiny of their immediate impacts: heating, cooling, lighting, water consumption, embodied energy, expected lifespan, etc..

Transit Oriented Development around City Collage Station in San Diego

What though of buildings outside of cities or at their margins, where there is no frequent public transport? Looking holistically at the energy needs of buildings like these—especially ones in mild climates, that have minimal heating or cooling needs anyway—means taking full account of the car trips they cause. Green ratings tools cap the total number of points that can be raised by sensible siting, to roughly the number a project can raise with economising desk lamps and tap fittings. They don’t deduct points for siting buildings so wantonly that energy consumption related to travel, could exceed the energy needs of the worst glass box of the 70s, relying entirely on air conditioning.

The architectural press regularly celebrates passively heated and naturally ventilated buildings in beautiful hinterlands, or near to beaches, with functions related to education, leisure or tourism. Many of our profession’s exemplars of low impact architecture, are weekenders, that were built so their owners could escape from the city in cars.  Whatever energy buildings like these might require for heating or cooling, pales compared to the energy spent connecting their users to cities.

So should architects be encouraged to boycott commissions like these, on sustainability grounds? That would be problematic, not only because of lost fees. Retreats from the city have been constructed all throughout history, dating as far back as Hadrian’s Villa, and even before that the Palace of Knossos. Frowning too heavily on unnecessary developments outside our cities, would disregard a seemingly innate human need to occasionally get out of town.

It is a conundrum deserving a thought through response from the architectural community. The response we have now is simplistic, borne largely of snobbery. We deride project homes and subdivisions as though they are unrivalled in the damage they cause, forgetting some of our discipline’s most acclaimed works of sustainable architecture, in peri-urban locations, result from patterns of human habitation that are even more wasteful. Behind euphemisms like “sea change”, or “tree change”, is a phenomenon we could as easily name “hyper-sprawl”. Cars stuck in traffic en route to eco resorts or interpretive centres, are as blameworthy for jams as those heading home to McMansions. Rainwater tanks on the buildings we drive to, don’t mean our car trips have somehow done good. Neither do cars that use half as much energy, excuse twice as much driving. Arguably, no level of LEED certification, no number of Green-Stars, and no amount of critical acclaim from other architects, can redeem buildings that aren’t near to transit, if we are serious about fossil fuel use, or global warming.

Believers in the future of cars may protest that one day cars could be running on renewable energy. But even if renewables did replace oil (and weren’t undercut by electricity made from nuclear power), cars and roads would still disrupt natural flora and fauna. Particles from tires as they wear, or oil leaking from gaskets, would still pollute creeks. “Green” cars would still cause congestion in cities, have an associated death toll, and have a deleterious impact on public health and wellbeing. And in places where we try to all come together, like town centres, car parking would continue to push us all further apart.

Downtown Launceston diffused by car parking

Cars are a big problem, that architects exacerbate every time they say, “it’s okay, we’ll just drive there”. What we need are strategies to mitigate the environmental cost of our desire to escape from the city. The first must be to recognise that all sprawl is sprawl, no matter how green-washed or architectural, and start reducing the rate at which we are building beyond walking range of frequent public transport.

But there’s another approach too. We could re-conceive the retreat. Rather than seeing these as places we race to in cars with maximum haste, to have the most possible time there relaxing, we can start imagining retreats as places to hike to, sail to, or ride to on bikes.

St Pancras

Works of architecture invite us to move, because they don’t move. Movement is like an absent presence: so conspicuous by its absence, that we start designing it in. A labyrinth on the floor of a pilgrimage church, that you’re meant to walk around before you walk down the aisle, is a good example of a way to make the long walk to reach this building, an actual part of the building.

Then there are buildings that act like portals upon mechanised modes of transportation, and give them an aura of magic. St Pancras in London was designed to inspire people to travel by rail rather than horse and carriage, the rival mode at the time it was built. Likewise an airport like Eero Saarinen’s Dulles Airport in Washington with its wing-like roof that appears to be flying, brings with it the message that flying is more exciting than rail or sea travel.

But it was driving that architects of the twentieth-century did the most to promote. Pioneers of functionalist design theory, like Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, assiduously conceived most of their buildings as destinations for people to arrive at by car (1). Functionalist theory often meant little more than making buildings function for car-use.

The overall composition of Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus building in Dessau, provides a grand entrance for cars, under a bridge, flanked by projecting wings. It was completed in 1926, the same year Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler merged their car making companies to make Mercedes-Benz, and when an explosion of car making enterprises across the US meant Henry Ford could no longer make one model only, and so introduced his Model A. It was a time when progressive architects could anticipate a future when everyone would arrive at their buildings in cars.

However, that was not yet a reality. Car ownership for most people would not occur until after WWII. Germany’s network of autobahns had been discussed, but actual work on their making was a decade away, when Adolph Hitler made them a national priority. Basing a building plan on the assumption that most people would be coming by car, in 1926, was premature. Yet Gropius was unwilling to consider anything else. Preliminary drawings of the Bauhaus Building (by Carl Fieger, not Gropius himself) all make a central feature of a bridge spanning a roadway (now Bauhausplatz) to create a grand gateway for the arrival and through-passage of cars.

What is most telling, is Bauhausplatz did not exist at the time. It was only much later that an estate was built and with it this street. Prior to that, the bridge of the Bauhaus was purely symbolic, built in anticipation of an imagined future when all buildings would be designed in symphony with networks of roadways, that at that time, barely existed.

The idea of cars for the masses,  and networks of controlled access highways, were still only dreams when Le Corbusier presented his own version of a building contorted for cars to drive under and through. His Villa Savoye (1928) would have a U-shaped driveway contained within the space defined by the building’s structural columns. Like the Bauhaus, it imagined a future when buildings would always and only be arrived at in cars.

It would be wrong to say Gropius and Le Corbusier simply guessed right, about buildings becoming destinations for cars, when in reality, these architects and their like minded contemporaries were instrumental in shaping that vision. Without their works, Sigfried Giedion would have had little upon which to hang the main thesis of his influential book Space Time and Architecture (1941), that led a generation of architects to view freeways and their collapsing of space into time, as a notion upon which to ground architecture. Giedion didn’t tell architects they were puppets of Henry Ford, or of oil companies, but heirs to Einstein’s thinking. They were representing the fourth dimension (time) in their work, the way Picasso had been doing with his cubist paintings. In architects’ imaginations, something as banal as a vehicular entrance meant a house was in tune with cosmology.

A drive-in project home by Pettit and Sevitt

As Tom Wolfe announced (with a tone of dismay) the Bauhaus would in time completely change our house. One of its legacies would be entrances to buildings that celebrate cars, and denigrate other means of arrival. A populace who has accepted this vision, is a populace ready to elect politicians who build them more roads.

The preceding historical narrative was fabricated with the specific aim of dragging the past into the present, to illuminate a current dilemma. In all but a few countries, like Denmark and the Netherlands, escaping the city is treacherous, without a car. Unlike the Netherlands, we have not linked minor farm roads with bike paths to make a bike-friendly alternative to our national motorways. Neither have we built separate bike paths parallel to our twin carriage highways. Our shining examples of non-urban bicycle infrastructure have seldom gone beyond the conversion of disused rail routes into bicycling trails, with a thin smear of bitumen.

A picture I have nicked from David Hembrow

Like Germany’s road network at the time of the Bauhaus, most countries’ networks of bike paths are in their infancy. They are bound to expand though, beyond urban districts, because where cycling has changed transportation before (ie., in Denmark and Holland) extensive networks of non-urban bike paths and bike routes have developed in tandem with bike paths in cities. We can expect our current rail trails and bike paths in parks and reserves, will eventually be patched to low volume roads, reengineered to favour cyclists, because that is how the Dutch countryside was cheaply and effectively opened to cyclists, in the wake of major improvements to city bike paths in the late nineteen seventies. The current  bikeification of cites world wide is an indicator of safer cycling outside of cities to come.

The rest of this essay will look at recent architecture, and actions by architects, that are inspiring cycling, in ways paralleling actions by Modernist architects that helped inspire personal and public investment in driving.

1. Antonio Amado Voiture Minimum Le Corbusier and the Automobile MIT Press


  1. Stuart Nottingham says:

    Steven, I think architects can influence the transportation modes surrounding their projects, particularly if done in conjunction with municipal/county planners. As an architect, I think you are limited in the scope/distance surrounding your building on which you exert your will. However, you CAN make your building so bike-friendly (i.e., bike storage, changing rooms, showers) that it can wake up the planners to provide the public infrastructure to reach it.

  2. Edward says:

    I agree with Stuart. At some point, doesn’t the architect’s power to influence transport choices dwindle and it becomes the urban planner’s responsibility? Isn’t it the responsibility of the person who designed the nearby roads for maximizing traffic flow, who omitted pedestrian crossings, who made the pedestrian route cross a large windswept swathe of concrete, and who completely omitted the “cycle-space”?

    • Luke says:

      Stuart, Edward, I only half agree.
      For out of town places people go to for recreation, storage and showers aren’t a big deal. They’re not enough to inspire people to spend several hours on bikes/boats/walking or whatever.

      And yes, urban planners have some responsibility, but (a) I think Steven has in mind ex-urban here and (b) while urban planners probably could make bike (or canoe/hiking) routes safe, I am not sure they could make them inspiring.

      The idea behind the post (I think) is making the green(ish) journey part of the recreational experience, as much as the destination. Safe bike paths are a start. If you’re used to, say, UK bike provision, Dutch cycle paths can be inspiring, particularly for children (as is the one of the few decent bike paths in the UK – Bath to Bristol). But that’s because we’re used to rubbish.

      My instinct is that it is difficult to find many inspiring destinations with inspiring routes, accessible to ordinary mortals. Steven would enjoy spinning up to a Tuscan hill town in the big ring, but not everyone would. Alternatively, that there’s only so much an architect or planner can do to improve the material available.

      But it’s a great concept, and there’s something ridiculous about flying/driving to eco homes, so I’m watching with interest.

  3. Will says:

    Don’t we all wish we could cycle or use public transport to get to holiday destinations.

    I’ll disregard the fact that I drove to QLD in the last holidays and imagine going to a closer destination. Perhaps to the Barrington Tops; When I go up there for holidays I regularly ride from the city to the turn to Stroud (about 40km). It takes me around an hour just to clear the city and get onto the side of the highway where I get beeped and (I assume) abused by motorists and trucks alike. Riding the road off the highway towards Stroud would literally be a death wish.
    All this aside, I often go to camp and take loads of gear, I like to take may Kayaks, I like to take my 2 dogs. Riding up there would also take the entire first and last day of the holidays.
    While its a really nice aspiration if its not appealing to me (a cyclist) I just can’t see others considering it.

    What I would like to see is transit infrastructure improved, going a greater distance on a holiday is really where a car comes into its own. In fact if I didn’t use my car for this purpose I probably would bother having one at all. 4 hours of driving to and fro in the holidays isn’t going to melt the ice caps. Driving 5 hours per week (or more) to work is melting ice caps.
    Riding to work from Newcastle into Maitland offers an adrenaline rush just after the Hexham Hungry Jacks where your riding in the left lane (legally) and soccer mums stuffing their face with Hungry Jacks try to (illegally) overtake trucks in your lane. Just when you think your in the clear you come to the bridge over the rail lines near Tarro station. So dangerous is the bridge that I’m forced to walk the narrow path or (illegally) cross the road to ride on the other side.
    If you look up the location in Google streetview the large truck and the overtaking 4×4 are placed there to great effect.

    In short, people need to be able to ride safely on the trips they take daily rather than yearly.

    • Steven says:

      Hi Will, thanks for the comment. It serves to remind me that I’m not thinking about trips to places quite so far away, or so perilous, as the ones you are focussing on. I’m thinking more of retreats we haven’t yet built, but could build, in places most able bodied people could get to on bikes, or on trains and then bikes. They’re trips most of us make more than annually.

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