Learning the Lessons of Drainage, Again!

November 30, 2012
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The picture is from an article in the New York Times on the havoc wrought on Nassau County’s sewage treatment plants by Hurricane Sandy.  Readers of this blog who have attended to the warnings of the original Lichanos, source of my nom de plume, will not be suprised.

A few excerpts from the Times piece describing what happened when the system went down, my emphasis:

In less than 30 minutes, engines for the plant’s main pumping system were under 12 feet of water, and sewage began to back up and overflow into low-lying homes. In one low-lying neighborhood, a plume of feces and wastewater burst through the street like a geyser.

During heavy rains, there are occasional sewage leaks, particularly in low-lying areas, residents say

For the residents of Barnes Avenue in Baldwin, a low-lying stretch about three miles from the Bay Park plant, the failure during the hurricane was the culmination of their worst fears, though hardly a surprise. …After Tropical Storm Irene sent human waste splashing onto lawns and front porches last year, residents said, the county bolted manhole covers shut to prevent them from opening.

And now, for those of you too lazy to go the source, I reproduce here the most probing and relevant section of Drainage:  The Wine of Life in which Professor Hilton Korngold summarizes The Drainage Crisis.  I have added some emphasis:

… in the probing monograph, “Towards an Interpretation of the Drainage,” . . . Hilton Korngold, describes with disturbing calm the widespread deterioration of urban drainage systems in the Western World. In this work, Korngold writes:

We must arm ourselves with all the material and spiritual forces at our disposal to ensure that this crucial epoch is one of the transcendence into unity of Drainage and Drained or else our culture is doomed to destruction. Extrapolation from our present condition along the lines of Revelation yields a vision of Busting sewer mains and all waters of the world made as wormwood, unfit to drink.  Mankind would be reduced to a primitive state of disunity, neighbor isolated from neighbor by vast surging cataracts of fluid, while the monument of our era’s accomplishments would gradually be submerged beneath festering pools of stagnant runoff. In this hell on earth all laws of sense will be overturned, men will go mad for lack of water to drink, sinks and cisterns will back up onto your floor instead of efficiently disposing of your wastes, and the Power of the Plumber will be null. Men in their frenzy of despair and disbelief will turn the evil upon themselves, building houses at the bottom of hills, in marshes, and along oozing gullys, while the Few Who Know will be the object of arrogant derision. And it is the folly of human inaction which will bring down on us this recapitulation of The Flood.

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Appease the Drainage Gods!

July 22, 2011

The Gods of Drainage have not been happy, and they have visited their wrath on the city of New York.  A “catastrophic fire” in the pumping station that lefts raw sewage into the North River Treatment Plant, which purifies it, and discharges it into the Hudson River, has shut down the facility completely.  Raw, that’s untreated, sewage from half of Manhattan is now pouring into the river, and will continue to do so through the weekend.  And it’s in the middle of a remarkable heat wave.  That means stay away from that beautiful riverside park all along the Hudson – it’s not going to smell too nice!

This map shows the areas that are served by the city’s fourteen sewage treatment plants:  the one that is out of action is No. 6.  Number Six!?  You can read all about the system in this NYC DEP publication.


Surburban expletive deleted

July 25, 2010

When Nixon’s secret tapes of his White House conversations were released under duress as part of the machinations of Watergate, the phrase, “expletive deleted” from the typwritten transcripts entered the language.  Nixon’s chat was not always of an elevated nature.

There is a blog on the NYTimes Opinionator page about a contest to redesign (yet again) the suburbs, this time of Long Island.  What struck me most about this post was the comments:  they are vehement, often violent, and I have never seen so many editorial deletions of inappropriate comments.  Apparently, feelings about urban design run pretty high.  And I am a frequent reader of climate-change blogs, where emotions are not exactly, shall we say, cool.

One line of thought was that the entire idea was a crock.  The suburbs are hell.  They should be razed completely.  Tax auto use to the skies and force those jerks to take mass transit.

Another was that NYC life has become impossible for middle-class people with families, so why do you hate us so much?

Plans of all sorts abound, from utopian to totalitarian.  Everyone has the solution. Everyone should be happy to live in the suburbs that I design.

Confusion over the very nature of terms is fundamental.  Manhattan is an American anomaly.  Many local suburbs are as dense as cities elsewhere in the USA.  Most people who live in American cities live in regions that would at least look suburban to New Yorkers.

Sprawl is evil.  Suburbs are evil.  Cities are virtuous.  People in the suburbs live soulless, isolated lives.  As if you can’t be terribly lonely and bored in the midst of a crowd in Bryant Park.

For another post on the topic of urbanist-ideological ranting, visit here:  Facing the Reality of Sprawl.


I miss Venice

December 21, 2009

I last spent time in La Serenissima about thirty years ago.  How time … [insert cliche here.]  I was on my way to India via the land route, and stopped for a week or so, drunk with architecture.  It was September, and I thought that the high tourist season would be over by then, but I was wrong.  I spent my first night on the Lido beach, I recall.  The sight of boats laden with tourists gliding through the dark, surrounded by crowded walkways, reminded me of Disneyland, but I knew why I was there.

With daylight, I found my way to the Giudecca, the Jews’ island, where the International Youth Hostel was.  I ate for free during the several days of the Festival of Unity staged by the Communist Party – delicious.  The irony was tasty too – I am neither an observant Jew nor a communist.  Moreover, the Jewish ghetto of Venice was never located on that island, which is home to one of the great Renaissance monuments, the church of Il Redentore  by Palladio.

Venice seems to have a special place in the imagination of Europeans, even Italians, as well as tourist hordes worldwide, and it is featured in films often. Two films I like very much that feature Venice are Italian for Beginners and Bread and Tulips, one Danish, one Italian, both romantic comedies.  Then there are the films I don’t like, and films I thought were great but that I’m too scared to watch again.

When I was studying the history of architecture, a grad student told me that “everyone loves Venice.”  That is, all architects and planners, regardless of their stylistic bent or ideology (and the latter can be pretty fierce among architects – intensity seems inversely proportioned to the number of completed projects…) all point to the city of Venice as the exemplar of whatever they hold most dear.  It is often cited as a supreme example of “organic” urban growth, and indeed, from the air, it looks sort of like a schematic fish!  I have always thought the Grand Canal, snaking through it, looks like the main intestinal tract in higher animals, and once again, that is, sort of, what it is for the city as a whole.

Now, the city is a fossil, without an economy independent of tourism, although we shouldn’t despise it for that since in our “spectacular age,” tourism is an industry like any other.  The sinking has stopped with the cessation of pumping in Mestre and other places, but high water, as always, is a problem.  The flood gates are under design to preserve the physical fabric of the place from inundation, but the lower stories  of many structures, already sunken to the point that portions are permanently submerged while they were designed for occasional flooding, are crumbling and need shoring up.

I don’t really care – the city is a physical creation unlike any other in the world and should be appreciated for that beyond all else.  It is a monument to the amazing creativity of the urban collective, and it provides an ideal point against which to measure any urban fantasy, because it was as real as real can be for centuries.  Pity it, laugh at its not-too-clean canals, dismiss it as a decaying urban theme park:  what city can claim to have been so powerful, so rich, so influential, and so fantastically beautiful in a way unmatched by anyplace on earth for so long?

Oh, and then there’s that Fourth Crusade, with its never-ending lessons for the rest of us…


Let’s recognize reality…

June 3, 2009

big_sprawl

Kevin Lynch’s book, The Image of the City, is an investigation of how inhabitants of urban areas form an image in their minds of the city, and the implications of this for ‘urban design.’  The book is a classic, endlessly cited.  I have been thinking a lot lately about cities and urban sprawl, and I am wondering if our image of the city isn’t a big part of the problem when we start diagnosing and ranting about urban ills of today.

Many of us come to the city with a notion of what a city should be that is woefully out of date, and has nothing to do with the cities in which we live.  A true believer in the Lynch point of view, at least as I understood it as a student long ago, would say that people today have no clear idea of the cities in which they live because the urban form has spread, “metastisized,” sprawled, bled all over, etc. etc. the surronding area and that cities have no form, are formless, today.  Of course, everything has a form.  Maybe not the one you like…  The conclusion is that something is terribly wrong in everywhere-ville today.

To see the Ur-source of western city images, you could hardly do better than this book,which I heartily recommend:

cities_taschen

click link

Cities of the World – the complete color plates from 1572 – 1617 by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg.  This was, perhaps, the golden age of city form, or at least of idealized versions of it committed to paper.  Looking through this book is a dizzying experience for anyone who is interested in urban history and European architectural tourism!  The plates are positively awe inspiring in their beauty.  They convey a powerful, nostalgic, and completely inappropriate way of looking at cities of today.  But who cares!

Here are some good cities!

urbino page_xl_braun_hogenberg_10_0809181220_id_138632

cambrayfull braun_hogenberg_III_2_b

17582-01

They all are so clearly demarcated from the surrounding country.  They give such a clear sense of their structure and ordering principles.  Their enclosure by walls or moats makes them look like biological cells, prompting all sorts of fertile notions about urban growth, organic growth, sustainability, city-nature, etc.  Of course, this was a picture book.  Did the cities ever look quite like this?  To a great extent, yes, but any unsightly details such as squatters or gypsies, industrial outbuildings crowded up against the edge, and the like, were removed.

new-jerusalem-tapestryThis IS the image of the city we carry with us, at least those of us who have been properly educated, as I was.  The image has many sources, not the least of which are religious, as shown here in this scene from 14th century tapestry in which John views the Celestial Jerusalem.  Of course, there’s also Homer, in which the walls of Troy are for viewing the fighting going on in the plain below.

In his wonderful book, Sprawl:  A Compact History, (clever, that compact bit) Robert Bruegmann challenges a lot of these notions.  Sprawl, suburbs and suburbanization, development, edge-cities, exurbanity, and all that are the antithesis of the city.  Or so we think.  He argues, convincingly, and on the contrary, that there has always been sprawl, but that it was always the preserve of the economic and power elite.  Today, sprawl, or low-density urban living, has been democratized.  In his book, he doesn’t really evaluate sprawl as good or bad, except to say that it clearly has many good consequences and many that are not good.  This neutral approach infuriates some people who seem to feel that not declaring war on sprawl at the outset puts him in league with the devil, or at least with the Republicans.  Bruegmann feels that sprawl, and the cities with which it forms urban systems is too complex to yield to simple analyses:  first we must understand the history and nature of what we are ranting about.  Over and over again he marshals facts and logic to challenge, and sometimes demolish the pretensions of the anti-sprawl contingent, and a few of my preconceptions fell by the wayside in the process.

As I read through his book, it seemed to me that sprawl and global warming have much in common as causes – indeed many would join them in some way – in that they have a religious significance for many people.  To investigate scientifically is to violate sacred taboos.

Perhaps my favorite moment in reading was when he remarked on the monumental lack of curiosity regarding the reality of modern city life present in the writing of Lewis Mumford, a veritable god to me in my younger days.  Well, I still like Mummy’s prose – readers of this blog will be familiar with my weakness for apocalyptic cultural and political  critiques – but the fact is, he’s right.  I wonder, did Mumford ever speak to someone who liked living in the suburbs?


Drainage on my mind…

December 10, 2008

  welles_sewer

The other night, I caught the tail end of a special on the The History Channel called “The Sewers of London.”  Wow, that must have drawn quite an audience…but I was watching.  It described the horrors of cholera and typhus in London before the scientists had sorted out the causes of these scourges.  The miasma theory (infection borne by odor) which was wrong, but which nevertheless motivated great public works that led to spectacular gains in public health, dominated the medical establishment.

The Great Stink of the the mid-19th century in London arose from raw sewage dumped right into the Thames, the source of the city’s drinking water.  The theory of water-borne disease was not accepted, and Pasteur’s germ theory was not developed yet.  Get the stink away and the cholera will leave – it was common sense!

bazelgetteEnter Mr. Bazelgette, heroic engineer of the Victorian Age.  (Alas, we  have these giants  no more!)   He built a huge gravity drainage system that directed the city’s sanitary waste to two large pumping stations, from which it was lifted into giant holding reservoirs.  (They must have been a frightful sight when full!)  When the tide on the Thames was going out to sea, the reservoirs were emptied into the river, and the sewage was carried downstream, away from the city.  “The solution to pollution is dilution,” as they say in the engineering world.  Today, the beautiful Thames Embankment, imitated the world over, including in New York City’s Battery Park developments, sits on top of the massive gravity sewers designed by Mr. B.

londondrain1 thames_embankment

Around the same time, Doctor Snow made his famous map, dear to epidemiologists and cartographers, that showed the incidence of cholera in a neighborhood he studied.  He inferred correctly that the cases were all linked to the snow_mapsource of their drinking water, a local pump.  To test his notion, he dared to remove the handle (take note, Mr. Dylan) and the frequency of cholera deaths in the area dropped suddenly.  Case closed!  Disease is carried by…something…in the water, not by smell!

Which brings us to Alida Valli, the woman at the head of this post, the love interest of Harry Lyme (Orson Welles) who meets his ignominious end in the sewers of post-war Vienna in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man. I heard about this film from my mother, at a very young, formative age. Was I, perhaps, conditioned by what Pynchon calls the “Mother Conspiracy, ” just as poor Slothrop was? Is that why I now make my living fiddling with drainage systems and subterranean infrastructure? Well, leaving aside my hydraulic-psychoanalytics(and Freud was, I recall, very fond of hydraulic metaphors) it’s a great film.  And if you think I’m the only one who spins strange associations off of this film, read this appreciation of Ms. Valli.

I recently saw Valli in another film, Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case, a not-so-great film in which she plays a wonderful femme fatale. Yep, she did it, she get’s hanged.  The film’s location shot of the court struck me as it showed the corner blasted away from a bombing raid – it was shot in 1947.

And on the subject of sewers and culture, check out:

  • He Walked by Night – Richard Basehart kills and is killed in this Los Angels noir featuring a climax in the storm sewers
  • V by Thomas Pynchon – Benny Profane searches for the albino alligator rumored to lurk within the New York system
  • Need I say it, Les Miserables, which includes an entire chapter devoted to the history and importance of the Paris sewers, and includes some deprecatory words on the modern ones
  • Various memoirs of the Warsaw Ghetto – hiding and escaping in sewers was common
  • Adolf Loos’ emphasis on plumbing as the standard by which civilizations are to be judged
  • Gibson’s novel featuring The Stink, The Difference Engine

There are other items I’m sure…send me your finds!

valli


Architecture: that human scale…

August 10, 2008

There is a story about a press conference with Minoru Yamasaki before construction on the World Trade Center began:

“Why did you scale down your design from 150 stories to 100, Mr. Yamasaki?”
“We wanted to keep the human scale.”

Uh, yeah, right!

What’s up with this building of the Chinese State TV headquarters now going up in Beijing?  It’s designed by Rem Koolhaas, shown here in a presentation drawing.  Is it a Moebius strip?  I can’t decide whether it’s some kind of wonderful or a vision from the hell of 1984.  I don’t like to pass judgments about buildings I’ve never seen, but this one does give me the creeps.  I can imagine the minions of the state propaganda apparatus having a fine old time inside trying to control the minds of the nation.  And they say it is the largest office building in the world next to the US Pentagon.  Talk about human scale…which is something that Koolhaas does talk about.

Architects are a funny bunch.  Creative, ego-centric, perhaps a bit megalomaniac when they turn their hands to urban planning and “urbanism” writ large.  After all, don’t they want to see their drawing board visions brought to life?  Not that they want to impose them…except for our own good…

Here’s a gallery of images of buildings that seem to lack that loving, human touch…starting with a photo of the CCTV in progress:

We’ve got the Chinese TV headquarters under construction, then two shots of the late, great twin towers.  I know it’s heresy to say this, but I think that they destroyed the skyline of Manhattan.  Quite honestly, I hated them and found them to be soulless, overpowering buildings set in a windy plaza above a depressing subterranean shopping mall.  Now I look down from my window and watch their successors take form.

Next up, Le Corbusier’s vision for Paris – knock down the buildings and set up rows of cruciform skyscrapers.  The street must die!  It’s so noisy, chaotic, and…lacking in ORDER!  (Jane Jacobs knew where he was coming from.)  Corbu’s vision was realized in part in NYC in Cooper Village and Stuyvesant town, two mega developments that provided a lot of low-cost living space to WWII veterans coming home.  The towers are dull, even ugly, and set in a rather boring and uninspired “park” setting which is, however, lovingly, even lushly tended.  A saving grace…Now the subsidies are gone and the apartment rents and prices are through the roof.

Some visionary stuff a la Francaise. Claude Ledoux’s spherical house, pure geometry, but not overly large.  Still, what’s the point of living in that other than to prove an artist’s point?  And the Great Arch of La Defense, located on the edge of Paris.  Another exercise in pure form – lovely isn’t it?  Nearby, the National Library, in the shape of an open book.  Nevermind that functionally it is a failure, i.e., it doesn’t store books very well.

Next up, two images of the Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York, the capital of New York state.  “Empire State” is the nickname of  New York (thus the Empire State Building…) but it seems a bit ironic here.  A plaza in the capital of a state ruled by democracy, named “empire,” and in a style that would seem at home in an evil empire anywhere, cinematic, soviet, futuristic fascist, and the like.  It was built by Nelson Rockefeller, a man not known for his humility.  The huge reflecting pool on the left has a pavilion at the end that seems like an imperial Persian review stand on steroids.  And that weird floating thing on the right in the middle picture?  That’s a theater, not a cast-off from The Jetsons.  The last picture on the row, a shot of Brasilia, carries on the theme with a little more elegance.

Closing out, we have some fantastic visions – never built, of course, but today..? – by Etienne Boullee.  A pryamid a la modern, an enormous, cavernous, seemlingly infinite design for a national library, and a monument to Issac Newton.  The latter at least makes a nice match of over the top design with the size Newton’s ego, his subject, and his accomplishments as well.