New York Alki

I just finished Ryan Boudinot’s Blueprints of the Afterlife. It’s one of the most original and convoluted stories I’ve read in recent years; like David Mitchell meets William Gibson.

There are some beautiful sentences lurking in this story:

Like a rivulet of suffering feeding into the tributary, this new source of sad humanity bled from the TV…


The end was a slow but accumulating tabulation of lost things. We lost species of animals, polar ice, a building here and there, whole cities. There was a time when we lived on streets where we knew our neighbor’s names but now we were all strangers isolated in our condos late at night, speaking across distances to our lonely, electronic communities.

The book also features the most interesting architectural reinterpretation of the future I’ve read in recent years. Here’s how Victoria, BC looks a few hundred years from now:

The city of Victoria appeared to have regressed in age, its green-built skyscrapers brought to heel, malls and parking garages and condominiums razed, all replaced by roiling wilds. What remained standing were the buildings worthy of the city’s heritage-the Parliament, some Tudor-style B&B’s, a replica of Shakespeare’s house. This was a city that had once aspired to London’s botanical gardens and double-decker buses but had negotiated with the tribal culture that preceded it, arriving at an aesthetic truce, a fusion of potlatch and high tea. Here and there totem poles and longhouse materialized from the Emily Carr mists rolling off the harbour, monuments of extinction far more distant than the end times of recent memory.
Abby disembarked, suitcase in one hand, a duffel containing her tools in the other. Up ahead was the Empress Hotel, a stately, ivy-clad structure that smugly lorded over the geography as is glaciers had sculpted the harbour for its benefit alone. It used to be a hotel anyway. In recent centuries it had survived fires, vandalism, drug-addicted architects who’d added wings and bunkers. A scorched tower stood proudly unbowed. Abby ascended to the lobby entrance, skipping every other step.

But the most interesting idea in the book is New York Alki.

The book is set in the Pacific Northwest, primarily around Seattle. Now it turns out that Seattle was originally called “New York Alki“. Alki was a local native work for “by and by” and several of the original settlers were from New York. One day, by and by, Seattle would be New York.

It hasn’t exactly worked out that way, but Blueprints shows how it could.

Because it turns out that Bainbridge Island – just across Puget Sound from Seattle – is roughly the size of Manhattan (Manhattan is 13 miles long; Bainbridge clocks in at 10 miles). In Blueprints, Manhattan is literally recreated on Bainbridge Island, which is terraformed into the shape of it’s eastern neighbor.

I couldn’t help but wonder what this would look like, so I thought I’d create a map showing it. Here it is using Open Street Maps and Tilemill:

New York Alki

If this is too small for you, here’s a high res version.

A couple of interesting things happen. First, New York Alki connects to Seattle via the longest suspension bridges in the world and the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges actually cross over each other just off the old coast of Bainbridge.

Downtown Seattle is connected to New York Alki via the Midtown tunnel; the Williamsburg Bridge will drop you off at Denny Way. Magnolia and Discovery Park are about to get a lot more car traffic – but they get the sunset over Midtown’s spires. And if you’re going to the airport, you’ll want to take the Brooklyn Bridge. And Blake Island now has its own tunnel.

The Tower

A popular trope in modern fiction is the dystopic tower: a skyscraper that becomes its own self-government and slips into chaos. The building-a symbol of the future-becomes a trap for all those living in it and a blight on civilization.

JG Ballard wrote one the seminal book with High Rise. The last two years have each seen a movie where a high rise is controlled by drug lords who terrorize the inhabitants and live above the law.

2011 featured The Raid :

Next year it was Dredd :

There’s actually historical precedent for this theme. I’ve written before about Kowloon Walled City; a recent article in the New Yorker entitled Slumlord takes us inside a new Kowloon Walled City, Caracas’ Tower of David (there’s also a great Time article here).

From one side the building appears finished; all glass and steel. From the other, it’s a vertical shanty town, with concrete favelas stacked on top of each other.


Image courtesy of WebUrbanist

The text paints a vivid image of life inside the slum:

The halls were angled to admit light from the wall-to-wall windows at the end of the building, but they were still dim. On the unfinished floors, people had built small homes out of painted cinder block and plaster. Many kept their doors open, for better air flow as much as for sociability, and I could see them busy with everyday life: cooking, cleaning, carrying pails of water, taking showers. Music played here and there. Daza [the guy who organized the squat and runs the building] had rigged up a generator-powered water pump and each floor had a tank, but the water supply ran unpredictably through pipes and rubber hoses.

The Tower has several bodegas, a hair salon, and a couple of ad-hoc day-care centres. On the ninth floor, I visited a small bodega, where Zaida Gomez, a white-haired, garrulous woman in her sixties, lived with her mother, who was ninety-four. She showed me the cubicle next to the shop, where she had settled her mother, a tiny birdlike woman who slept on a bed right next to one of the plate glass windows. Gomez kept a fan going all the time, because the window made the room baking hot.

Gomez was one of early pioneers of the Tower, and she told me that, at the beginning, things had been terrible there. The Tower had been ruled by malandros [property invading gangsters], she said, shaking her head; there had been beatings, shootings, killings. But now she was able to leave the door of her shop open, something she had never been able to do in Petare, the slum where she had lived before. Her shop sold everything from soap to soda pop and vegetables, and to bring in supplies she made the journey up and down nine floors several times a day. It was tiring, she said, but she couldn’t afford to pay the mototaxis [the first 10 floors include a parking garage and you can get a ride to the top on a motorcyle], who charged fifteen bolivares (about eighty cents) for each ride. She had a daughter who helped her, and a grandson.

The article is worth reading in its entirety as it contains several almost unbelievable stories about how surreal life is in Chavez’s Venezuela.

When Architects Open Cafes

For Christmas, Wen bought me a subscription to Mark magazine. Every two months visions of another architecture arrive at our house.

The last issue featured an article on architects who have opened businesses inside the spaces they designed. The concept of the article felt a little navel-gazely and trite, but then you have to remember that most architects never actually operate out of the spaces they design (Imagine working for the phone company and using the other guy’s service).

But I digress.

One of the places mentioned was the Stable Cafe in San Francisco. Turns out that an architect bought the building – an old stable – and put his studio on the upper floors. Unable to figure out what to do with it, he turned the lower level into a cafe.

Through sheer luck, I found myself in SF for a business meeting about six blocks away, so I headed on over afterwards.

Here’s the street view: a striking black building that blends the historic upper level with the more modern lower:
Stable Cafe

I want to come back in the summer as there’s an enormous outdoor patio area beside the building:

Stable Cafe

The cafe proper is an airy space with a rear loft. The front’s home to rotating oversized artworks:

Stable Cafe

Note the terrariums. Not just on the wooden slab table but also hanging below.

Here’s a view from the loft:

Stable Cafe

And here’s the kitchen where the friendly staff work. Note the La Marzocco machine; they take their coffee seriously here.

Stable Cafe

Worth a visit if you find yourself in San Francisco’s Mission.

Beaty Biodiversity Museum

Today Wen & I went for a walk around UBC. I love exploring their campus with its diverse architecture, museums and forest trails.

I’ve been waiting for a long time to get inside the Beaty Biodiversity Museum to see their blue whale skeleton. The poor thing hit a ship, died and was buried in PEI in the 1980s; 20 years later it was dug up and the skeleton reassembled for the museum.

The skeleton’s visible from outside the museum; here’s what it looks like on the inside:

Interesting facts:

  • Each of those jawbones – the largest single bone of any animal on earth – are each eight meters long and weighs 550 kilograms
  • A blue whale’s heart is the size of a car and only beats 5 to 10 times per minute
  • A blue whale usually has 30 or 32 ribs – but this one has 31
  • Total weight of this animal: 150 tons (equivalent to 33 full-grown elephants). The species maxes out at 180 tons

The building itself is also beautiful. There’s a courtyard surrounded by the building proper. Some of the students have cheekily decorated the windows. And, if you walk around the courtyard, you can see additional skeletons beyond the whale.

Architecture Notes from Vancouver


Yesterday, Wen and I needed new mugs. Actually, it’s fairer to say that we wanted new mugs. We’ve had the same mugs for 10 years now and they’re showing their age – or perhaps, we’re showing our age and want new mugs.

Anyways, that’s all a digression. We went to Walrus to see if they had anything interesting and then headed over to Vancouver Special.

Imagine my surprise when, while cutting across 19th or some other suitably anonymous street, we found ourselves amidst a flock (gaggle?) of Vancouver Specials.

Before Vancouver gave the world the City of Glass

Vancouver condos

…it gave it the Vancouver Special. For the uninitiated, this is a type of single family home built between 1965 and 1985. Here are some snapshots of what this local contribution to the architectural pantheon looks like.

Vancouver Special

Vancouver Special

Vancouver Special

Vancouver Special

And here’s a map.


It feels like the entire city of Vancouver is under development right now. A cacophony of condos sprout on the skyline, cranes hinting at pedestals and towers to come.

One strange phenomenon is the rise of the developer “park” – a lot of land that will soon be home to a condo and is temporarily converted (really, just grassed over) into a park.

Fake Vancouver Park

Fake Vancouver Park

Temporary Park

Temporary Park

Many thoughts go through my mind when I see these “parks”.

The first is the way they taunt you by saying “public welcome” – undoubtedly legal speak included to preclude trespassing.

Secondly is the utter lack of the previously mentioned public. I’d like to imagine that people can see past the feeble amenities (a bit of grass! a bench!) and sense what this truly is: an advertisement and a taunt; where you presently find a park will soon disappear and you’ll have to forage further for open space.


What’s amazing is that this hubbub of activity is really just the continuation of a 25+ year old experiment.

False Creek used to be the industrial base of Vancouver, a mix of industrial and commercial spaces:

Screen Shot 2012-03-04 at 9.34.21 AM.png

Above: 1971 courtesy of M S Horne.

With Expo 86, an ambitious urban redevelopment plan was undertaken, and the entire north shore of False Creek was converted temporarily into a world stage:


Photo courtesy of Presentation Gallery

But the Expo was only temporary; the land was sold to Li Ka Shing who created Concord Pacific to develop the lands. (And, now you can see why he’s a billionaire and you’re not, with the ability to recognize the long-term potential of land like that).

Now, when you arrive at Vancouver’s airport you’re greeted by a sign for Concord, showing how they have single-handedly transformed what the city looks like (and not the unbuild properties just to the right of BC Place stadium):

Sign at airport for Concord Pacific

Whenever I see this sign I’m struck by the long influence of history on cities. The stage for today was set over thirty years ago and we’re just going following through on decisions made by folks long gone.

I also wonder about other Western cities where one private developer has had so much influence. Anybody know of another Western city built almost entirely by one person?