Alexandra Lange | Essays

City of Shoes: Is Urbanism Scalable?

From Learning from Las Vegas.

For my class this week I assigned Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's "A Significance for A&P Parking Lots or Learning from Las Vegas," a 1968 chapter that sets out their Las Vegas project in bite-size form. In re-reading it, I remembered the description of the typical exterior Vegas form (road, sign, parking lot, building), but not their pointed analysis of the casino interior, or their distaste for the single, bewitching idea modernists take from the past: the piazza. In Vegas, to their joy, unnamed casino architects have managed to make the piazza their own in the form of the patio.
The gambling room is always very dark; the patio, always very bright. But both are enclosed: the former has no windows, the latter is open only to the sky. The combination of darkness and enclosure of the gambling room and its subspaces makes for privacy, protection, concentration, and control. The intricate maze under the low ceiling never connects with outside light or outside space. This disorients the occupant in space and time. He loses track of where he is and when it is. Time is limitless because the light of noon and midnight are exactly the same.
I was reminded of this passage because I've recently been reading about Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's project to remake downtown Las Vegas. (Terrific New Yorker profile of Zappos and the cult of Hsieh here.) Not the Strip, not the suburbs, downtown Vegas suffered from an exodus of population and money both before and after the boom, but has also spawned a nascent alternastrip in the Fremont East District. When he found out the city's former City Hall, two blocks from Fremont, was available, Hsieh decided to lease it and make it Zappos new headquarters, while also seeding the transformation of the city around it via the $350 million Downtown Project. I've been enthralled by this idea since I first heard of it: spending money on more than your own employees welfare? Doubling-down on existing architecture and infrastructure? Density? Buses? All good, especially in contrast to the prevailing architecture of the western tech campus. Could Vegas come out of the casinos and into the light?

Former Las Vegas City Hall, future Zappos headquarters.

In a long interview last week with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Hsieh explained his reasoning for taking on the city more fully, and explicitly made the anti-corporate campus point.
HSIEH. We thought about campuses like Nike, Google, Apple. But then, as we started thinking about it more, we realized that those campuses were great but they really didn't contribute to or integrate with the community around them. It just made a lot more sense instead of just focusing on ourselves to focus on the community, the ecosystem, the environment. If we really invest in the ecosystem, it becomes this positive feedback loop. Imagine if every bar, restaurant and coffee shop was like "Cheers," you are going to run into someone you know. The goal is to create everything you need to live, work and play within walking distance and to make downtown Vegas the most community focused large city in the world.
Having spent a week at Facebook, Google, Apple in January for a forthcoming essay on what I am calling "The Dot-Com City," I am in radical sympathy with Hsieh's idea. The difference between the urbanish amenities offered on the campuses, and the paucity of community space around them was striking. All the more so because all of those companies, like Zappos (though each CEO makes it sound like he invented the idea), place a premium on serendipitous encounters. As Leigh Gallagher wrote in Fortune:
Indeed, the motivation for Hsieh's big bet comes from his long-held philosophy that serendipitous interactions, or what he likes to call spontaneous "collisions" between people, are what spark ideas and what facilitate relationships that lead to stronger ties -- and stronger ties lead to more ideas. It's why he's poured such effort into building Zappos' into a place where "culture magicians" work their magic and where streamers, balloons and toy figurines seem to spill out of every cubicle.

Current downtown success story, Fremont East.

And yet, reading these generally adulatory profiles, I can't help but wonder, as Carrie Bradshaw might say, what the urban equivalent of balloons and toy figurines might be. It gives me pause that, as Gallagher also reports, those leading the Downtown Project have no planning experience and their principal guru to date is economist Edward Glaeser, of Triumph of the City taller-denser-richer ubiquity. They know they don't know anything, and they don't care, because (another techy cliche) that means they can "ask the dumb questions." The brainstorming wall at Hsieh's downtown apartment (brainstorming = yet another dot-com innovation favorite, recently debunked) "has a collection of colored post-it notes listing the ingredients that they think go into the perfect neighborhood ("jazz fest," "beer garden," "wine bar/wine and cheese store", "dog park," "hybrid e-school (eg Khan Academy)," "Yoga!" And there was something about Burning Man.

At the risk of becoming another kind of cliche, the nay-saying, blinkered, expertise-loving type, I must point out: many of these urban ideas seem a lot like figurines: cute, emblematic, but ultimately beside the point. I'm surprised all those business reporters, and the local paper, aren't asking for more specifics. What about grocery store, hardware store, famers market, daycare? (OK, in the Inc. profile, there's a farmers market Post-It.) Yes, investing in density and walkability is a good thing. Yes, unsiloing a successful dot-com enterprise is a good thing. But can you really scale a company into a city, and not make it a company town? Is it only bureaucracy that makes running a city difficult? Which public does Hsieh really want to hang out with at that "Cheers" beer garden? On that point he seems rather vague. Again, from the Review-Journal:

Q. Are the success of the Downtown Project and Zappos intertwined? Are they the same thing?

HSIEH. They are definitely intertwined. The more neighborhood-y, community things for Zappos employees to enjoy, the stronger our culture will be and the more our employees will learn through serendipitous collisions with not just each other but other people in the community.

All of the Downtown Project's opening moves have been to make that community consist of what sound to me demographically like former, current or future Zappos employees. They've leased 50 apartments in an existing luxury high-rise (that's where Hsieh lives) and offered them to Zappos employees and visitors. The first business in place is a co-working space for other, smaller start-ups. Hsieh has made a deal with Teach for America to bring 1000 employees and alumni to live and teach in the area.

And yet, when the Review-Journal asked him to comment on the current statewide referendum on spending more taxes on education, Hsieh refused to comment, instead invoking learning outside the classroom and outside your industry. His approach to city planning sounds an awful lot like Teach for America's approach to teaching: young blood and education trumping expertise and process? I'm not sure what side I'm on in the education fight, but Diane Ravitch's recent piece in the New York Review of Books raises important questions about accountability for Teach for America. Who is going to be the watchdog for Hsieh? And shouldn't he, at least, have an opinion about education if it's a button on his website? I don't hear much about the final pillar of neo-Jacobsian urbanism, diversity.

Jane's Carousel in Brooklyn (via automanual24.com)

His vision (not currently accompanied on the Downtown Project website by any visuals) reminds me in outline of Dumbo, here in Brooklyn, which was a decaying former industrial neighborhood and is a slightly cheaper version of Tribeca, but went through almost no transition period in between. Thanks to some strategic early rent reductions by major owner David Walentas, the neighborhood has a grocery store, but walking from the vintage carousel (restored by Walentas's wife Jane Walentas, and housed in a picture-perfect Jean Nouvel-designed pavilion) what one mostly sees is kid boutiques and cupcake parlors, Almondine and Powerhouse Books and West Elm. There's no fiber. And no schools. Yet.

It would obviously be ironic if modern architecture and the piazza lovers gained the upper hand in Las Vegas, and turned it into the walkable Italian village it never was. There's nothing wrong with more life downtown, even if it is aimed at the young, well-off and childless. But putting so much urban power in the hands of an amateur, letting him work out the kinks with his millions does seem like a dangerous game. What if Hsieh loses interest and moves back to the 'burbs when he finds cities aren't scalable? He and Zappos are probably portable; Las Vegas isn't.

Posted in: Architecture, Social Good, Technology

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