Author Archives: criticalurbanmoments

In the end, we have to confess: we are just too lazy to be sustainable


photo credit: Mobner

Apart from being a well-known fabricator of all things cool in interior design, The Vitra Co, located in tiny Weil am Rheine in Germany’s far southwestern corner, just five km from Basel, Switzerland, is famous for its postmodern architecture, a very high concentration of it. Situated within a few hundred meters of one another there are buildings designed by Frank Gehry (2), Herzog and de Meuron, Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates (SANAA), Tadao Ando, and Zaha Hadid. Indeed, Hadid’s installation the campus fire station, which was finished in 1993, was Hadid’s first realized design. The most quirky addition to the dreamy ensemble of structures is a Buckminster Fuller inspired structure that used to be a car dealership in Detroit, Michigan.

On a recent visit to The Vitra, we traveled from “Germany’s Greenest City” via RegioBahn to Haltigen and walked the final 2km, we were struck by the thought, design, and general aesthetic these buildings brought to the European production site of Vitra. Sure, Vitra likes beautiful design, but design also fits into their “global brand” alongside Ray and Charles Eames. We suspect that even the Jesus of beautiful devices, Steve Jobs, had visited the Vitra in his life, and “The Fake Steve Jobs” was outwardly jealous of their campus.

While Jobs’ products were made to be obsolete. The Vitra’s are not. If consumers could get away from spending $5 at Wal-Mart and consider something with a better design, higher quality, greener materials, and constructed by someone making a decent wage, we’d be happy. This is a rant for another post, however. Let’s get back to The Vitra’s beautiful built environment; in particular its most recent addition, the building designed by Japanese architect Tando Ando.

We were struck by Ando’s contribution for a number of reasons. First, if you didn’t look for it, you might not see it (see photo at right). This is somewhat ironic since the building is in the vitra-conference-center-8front part of the campus—its most publicly oriented section. If you are an employee, however, you know the building well, as it serves as the company’s conference center.

One approaches the building via lengthy, out of the way, footpath that crosses the public part of the campus via a series of right angles. This path is a central element of the Ando’s design. This feature also serves as the organizing metaphor for this essay.

Ando planned the footpath to serve as a non-direct connector between the campus and the conference center. The idea was intentional: to force people to walk a longer distance than the direct way, Ando wanted to create a meditative opportunity, so the path is reminiscent of a Japanese monastery or Zen garden. They even saved existing cherry trees.  See photo below.

 vitra google

The walk is supposed to encourage people, maybe Vitra managers and guests, to slow down and to become more mindful. Maybe you need to get away from the phone a little longer. Perhaps you could process your earlier disagreement with a colleague about whether the formal language of the company should be French or German. Moreover, the footpath is so narrow you couldn’t continue your debate with your colleague because it’s not wide enough to walk two abreast. Had this path been installed on the Bentonville, Arkansas campus of Wal-Mart we might think the purpose was to better prepare people for their meetings. Here, we hope it’s merely a generous offer.

We understand and appreciate Ando’s vision. It is a very interesting connection between space and individual emotion: By walking these ostensibly useless longer distances, around three corners and along a high wall on a narrow footpath, the daily business, daily stress and the last phone call can literally become more distant events bringing the topic of the meeting slowly closer to the manager’s perception. This simple architectonical trick works very well in theory.

This brings us to the point of this essay. Ando’s technical intervention is well intended and consistent with his design. But technical fixes are not tantamount to social change. You see, there is a well-worn grass path, in a straight line, that connects the Ando building with the campus. What’s the shortest distance between two points? It’s a straight line.

While Vitra went to great expense to commission and implement this design and, alas people don’t follow it. We didn’t either. Indeed, one of us (who it was will remain our secret) in an act of knee-jerk defiance insisted on taking the worn path of dead grass that looked a lot like a cow’s path going to a favorite watering hole.

Maybe the instigator of the tantrum is an unrelenting and churlish iconoclast. Or maybe his act of defiance triggered something more important. Suddenly, along that goddamn soggy footpath that got my fair-trade, organic boots all muddy made us think: The footpath is a metaphor for sustainability transitions. A sustainable urban lifestyle is a much longer footpath, around corners and walls. It makes life a bit uneasy, more challenging, than the direct way, at least that is the way it’s perceived.

For example, many cities around the world, Chinese eco-cities, Singaporean “smart city” models, New Urbanism and Smart Growth in the US, and Freiburg and Montpellier in Europe, are clamoring to develop well-designed quarters where people can live more sustainably. In actuality, these are enclaves of people who chose these developments for the very same reasons that white, middle class Americans moved from the suburbs to the city. Today, however, the discourse is one of sustainability, not some goddamn western-centric dream. Buying into, say, The Vauban in Freiburg one seeks to purchase much more than a solar house. Rather, what they are really in the market for is the dream of redemption—that their act of hedonism is somehow good for other organisms, sentient or otherwise.

It’s a lie. While they are metaphorically “buying” the Ando’s design, they are unwilling to accept the change it requires to take full advantage of the benefits of the space. They are not taking Ando’s path to get their front door, they are, perhaps without thinking, taking the short cut. Are we just too lazy for the social change that must accompany a sustainable transition?

Climate Change is the variable, Mercedes-Benz keeps the constant

(photo courtesy of

We recently visited the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart,Germany (see Photo 1). The building, which is designed by Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, appears at first glance to resemble three gigantic loops turning endlessly back into themselves  (see photo below). This architectural design underlines the company’s view of itself as being the quintessential automobile designer and producer in Europe, if not the world. Even the museum’s location, which lies next to the highway in Unter-Türkheim, is intended by Mercedes-Benz to symbolize a fixed point greeting the passing motorists who are ensconced in their daily routine of driving ever longer distances.

In the museum, Mercedes-Benz has documented its 125-year history of spectacular design and productivity; with the van Berkel and Bos building they establishing an iconic and material representation of their proud history.  The building’s interior is equally extraordinary (Photo 2).

photo credit: authors

photo credit: authors

Within in the interior, visitors are lead along a historic time-axis that sets the company into a historical path-dependency of German history and the history of Fordist production.  Walking down the aisle in this cathedral dedicated to engineering and business prowess, images and information panels enlighten the visitor and document important events in the company’s history.  For example, one series of panels explains how the company bore witness to the horrific events of World War I.  Another series of panels 100 meters down the ramp informs the visitor of the company’s relations with the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945, when the company was turned into a armament factory and employed slave and prison labor.  It engages emancipation and tells the story of Bertha Benz, Carl Benz’ wife, who was the first woman to make “long-distance” car ride – without Carl Benz knowing of it.

These events came and went.  Society changed.  The economy changed, too.  Daimler-Benz witnessed it all.

Toward the end of this proud and colored history there is another panel that made us stop and take pause.   The topic of this panel is climate change.  The panel explains the new challenges climate change has brought to the automobile industry and shows how Mercedes-Benz deals with it.   First, solar cars were developed in the 1970s, electric vehicle prototypes in the 1980s, the “Smart Car” in the 2000s.  Daimler’s engineers were there changing technology, improving lives, modernizing society.

The reader is left with the impression that — like the war to end all wars, the Nazi’s, and human alienation — climate change too will come and go.  Furthermore, in the rhetoric of the auto industry, as in the Obama Administration and others, just like new technology that is implemented in the cars:  climate change is there to be managed.  In fact, according to the panel it already has been.

Freiburg awarded Most Sustainable City in Germany

This year’s German Santa Claus had a big present for Freiburg in his sack: on December 6th the City of Freiburg was awarded the most sustainable city in Germany.

The award, which was given since 2008 every year to private enterprises and personalities engaged in sustainability, was this year extended by three categories of large, middle and small sized municipalities. Freiburg won in the category of large cities successfully competing against Augsburg and Leipzig. The argument of the jury of 16 experts was that Freiburg has since many years rooted aspects and principles of sustainability in both their administrational practice as well as the civil society. Green party Lord Mayor Dieter Salomon states that he often feels literally pushed by its citizens. It’s the same old green tautology we are already more than familiar with but that seems to work anyway.

Most sustainable enterprise is Bochum based GLS Bank, among the most sustainable products is Procter & Gamble’s Baby Pampers. The award is an initiative of the German Foundation Sustainability Award (Stiftung Deutscher Nachhaltigkeitspreis e. V.) cooperating with the German National Government, the German UNESCO commission, several research institutions as well as some NGOs. Among the jury is conservative politician Klaus Töpfer, member of the Christian Democratic Party CDU. Since he was the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme UNEP in 1998, Klaus Töpfer is considered the German human reincarnation of the environment an sustainability. It is not really surprising that some of his old fellow party members are joining the jury, such as Ole von Beust (Lord Mayor of Hamburg between 2001-2011) and Petra Roth (Lord Mayor of Frankfurt am Main between 1995-2012), both well known for several political programs they’ve run in their cities during their governments, however, not really for a greater awareness of sustainability. Sustainability seems to be a hobby for retired politicians; it’s the political equivalent to playing Golf or Polo.

Interestingly, while Freiburg’s Salomon thankfully regarded the citizen’s as the promotors for his green politics, he seems to forget that it was us citizens who protested on November 11th against his own housing policies and resulting for this, increasing rents in Freiburg. It is particularly the housing sector to which all refer to when applauding for Freiburg’s green strategy. SM