Category Archives: travel

Wayfinding And Preservation In A Small Town

Over the weekend I visited Price for work. While I was there saw some interesting examples of urban development in a small town.

Perhaps most notably, Price has some wayfinding in its downtown:

A map of downtown Price, in downtown Price.

A map of downtown Price, in downtown Price.

This map isn’t fancy or professionally sourced, but it’s better than what many cities have — including currently Provo, for some reason.

This isn’t to say Price is a walkability or tourist paradise. In reality, I saw almost no one walking around while I was there. But it’s nice to see the city make the effort, and this map really was all I needed to orient myself. In the end something is always better than nothing.

Another thing that stood out from Price was this ornate building:

A building in downtown Price.

A building in downtown Price.

This building is fancier and more interesting than most, maybe even all, of Provo’s comparable historic structures. It needs some new paint in a few places (ironically) but the faces in particular are quite impressive.

From this I glean two lessons: first, that small towns sometimes have the most impressive old buildings and, second, that growing towns experiencing relative prosperity (e.g. Provo) are often the ones that lose their historic buildings.

As I’ve written many times before, European tourist towns are a good example of this phenomenon; the old medieval villages we all love to visit today stayed the same for centuries because they experienced hundreds of years of decline, even poverty. During that time there was low demand for land and new development, so the old buildings remained untouched. On the other hand, a place like Manhattan — which was filled with smaller but still substantial historic structures before Provo even existed — prospered and eventually replaced most of it’s little buildings from 18th and early 19th century.

Comparing Price and Provo offers a similar, if accelerated and smaller example. In terms of infrastructure and architecture, Price’s downtown is very similar to Provo’s but more complete and unified. Despite it’s considerably small size, it has nearly as many old buildings and fewer appear to have been torn down. There are no big, ugly newer buildings in the mix, as there are in Provo.

But Price is smaller and not experiencing the kind of growth Provo gets. Hence, the better preserved downtown.

There are ways make sure historic preservation and growth don’t become mutually exclusive, but in the end greater prosperity almost always means changes to the built environment.

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Filed under Downtown, economics, travel, utah

Houses of Worship, Not Cookie Cutter Churches

One of my favorite things to do while traveling is visit magnificent churches. I like it so much in fact, that I’m reluctant to travel to places that don’t have great religious buildings.

Good religious architecture is one of life's great pleasures.

Good religious architecture is one of life’s great pleasures. This baroque church is located in Seville.

More than other utilitarian structures, houses of worship are overtly supposed to embody the values and faith of their creators; a great church shows that a community of people came together to glorify something they felt was important.

I was recently reminded of how diverse great religious structures can be while reading this Atlantic Cities article on “13 Eye-Catching Houses of Worship.” Though I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to religious architecture, the slide show demonstrates that new buildings can be as unique and inspiring in their own way as historic structures.

Utah consistently ranks as one of the most religious states in the U.S. Salt Lake is one of the most religious big cities, and Provo is presumably even more so. And there are interesting examples of religious architecture, with the LDS Church’s Provo Temple and Provo Tabernacle standing out.

But a lot of the religious architecture in Provo is, frankly, awful. The new stake center on 900 East immediately comes to mind as a bland, cheaply built structure on a woefully designed piece of asphalt (in a place where congregants could and should walk to church).

This sprawling structure was recently completed on 9th East and has numerous problems. Why, for example, are there so few windows and therefore so little natural light? Why is it surrounded by a massive parking lot when it serves mostly young, able-bodied people who live within walking distance. Why is it just so darn ugly?

This sprawling structure was recently completed on 9th East and has numerous problems. Why, for example are there so few windows and therefore so little natural light? Why is it surrounded by a massive parking lot when it serves mostly young, able-bodied people who live within walking distance. Why is it just so ugly? Is this how we want treat our faith?

Bear in mind that the building in the picture above is a multi-stake center, not a little local church. If it was a Catholic building, it would look like a cathedral or an abbey, not like a prison. And this isn’t an isolated incident, as the area around the Towne Center mall demonstrates:

South Provo.

South Provo and several churches.

Four churchs are visible in the picture above, though they nearly blend in with the mall on the lower right. Significantly they’re all built with a cookie cutter design and are surrounded by enormous parking lots — again in a place where many people could theoretically walk to church.

No one expects any organization to build only magnificent buildings; sometimes it’s just about whatever works.

But while every building doesn’t have to be grand, some should be. And yet I cannot immediately think of an LDS building  that was built in the last 20 years in Utah County that was was not an architectural disappointment. (The point isn’t to single out the LDS Church, which I happen to be a member of. Rather, the LDS Church is simply the largest religious property owner in the area and happens to have a lot of spiritually bankrupt architecture.)

The LDS Church also has an illustrious architectural past that produced grand structures like the Salt Lake Tabernacle as well as charming country chapels like this one in Levan:

This chapel is notable for including the words "Holiness to the Lord" above the door. The phrase is more common on LDS temples.

This chapel is notable for including the words “Holiness to the Lord” above the door. The phrase is more common on LDS temples.

Or this one in Provo:

This building, which today is no longer a church, is located on 5th West in Provo.

This building, which today is no longer a church, is located on 5th West in Provo.

Other religions have also built impressive religious structures in Utah. Salt Lake City has a handful of beautiful religious buildings, but other communities have noteworthy examples as well:

This Catholic Church is located in Park City. Unfortunately, Provo's best example of Catholic architecture was pointlessly demolished several years ago.

This modern Catholic Church is located in Park City. Unfortunately, Provo’s best example of Catholic architecture was pointlessly demolished several years ago.

Sadly, there’s good reason to fear the future; the LDS Church is currently transforming the Ogden Temple — which was similar to the one in Provo — from a modernist building to a cookie cutter structure. Hopefully a similar fate is not in store for Provo.

In Provo, the church also recently converted an interesting little modernist building in my neighborhood to a McMansion style office:

This building is located on the corner of 6th East and 1st North.

This building is located on the corner of 6th East and 1st North.

The transformation is detailed in Alan Peters’ blog — which has a lot of great Provo-related stuff. He writes,

This makes me sad. It was a unique-for-its-setting modern building; now its just another boring LDS-Church-plastic-style building. The building was actually built in 1964 as a seminary building for the now closed Farrer Junior High School. The seminary closed when Farrer became a middle school and that’s when the Family History people moved in. Farrer is completely gone now, replaced by the brand new Provo Peaks Elementary.

Is this really all our faith means to us? Cheap, generic structures surrounded by seas of asphalt? Shouldn’t at least a few buildings be designed to make us think of God?

English critic John Ruskin apparently thought so when he argued that buildings must be good on more levels than one:

We require from buildings two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well: then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it.”

Gaudi also pointed out that human creations, including buildings, are more than just containers meant to do a job:

The creation continues incessantly through the media of man.

Certain parts of select religious structures in Utah are designed to do just that. But spirituality isn’t a piecemeal thing and an utilitarian building with a pretty room isn’t the best we can do.

Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

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Filed under building, Mormon, travel

Frontrunner Free Ride Day

The opening of commuter rail is finally upon us, with the free ride day beginning tomorrow at 10 am and regular service starting Monday. If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you probably know the details, but just in case UTA created this page with all the relevant information.

The Frontrunner station in Provo.

The Frontrunner station in Provo.

Most importantly, the free rides will go from 10 am to 10 pm (so don’t get stuck in the wrong city) and “cost” a can of food. UTA also has these safety tips on its site, which are pretty self-evidence but still worth remembering:

  • Dwell time at each station is scheduled for 30 seconds and we expect large crowds. Please be prepared to embark/disembark in an efficient manner. The doors will not open once they have been locked down for departure.
  • If riding on an upper level, please make your way downstairs prior to arriving at the station.
  • Before you cross railroad tracks or enter a FrontRunner platform:
    • always watch for trains—look both ways
    • take off your head phones
    • put  your cell phone down—no texting or phone calls
    • hop off your bike or skateboard
    • hold smaller children’s hands
    • never cross between train cars—always walk around to a designated safe crossing
  • Always stand behind the yellow tactile strip when trains approach the platform.
  • Never walk or play on tracks or the rail corridor; even for short cuts.  It could be deadly and is trespassing, punishable by a $100 or greater fine.
  • Never go around a lowered gate or try to outrun a train.  Just wait for the train to pass, the gates to lift and lights to stop before crossing the track.
  • Never throw things at the train or place things on the track; you could get hurt or even derail the train.
Please don't let yourself get run over by the train. It's not hard a hard thing to do.

Please don’t let yourself get run over by the train.

And in case you haven’t seen it, UTA also has a comprehensive Frontrunner FAQ page that includes most additional information.

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Filed under commuting, travel

Goodbye Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer, the modernist master architect responsible in part for Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, died Wednesday at the age of 104. The New York Times states that he died of a respiratory infection while at a hospital in Rio de Janeiro.

Though this blog is about Provo, Utah, it takes its cues from many other cities around the world. And perhaps no city that I’ve visited is as remarkable or as bizarre as Brasilia, which was built from scratch in the middle of nowhere in the 1960s. The Times article (link above) has a great rundown on Niemeyer’s career, including his role in creating Brasilia:

His curvaceous, lyrical, hedonistic forms helped shape a distinct national architecture and a modern identity for Brazil that broke with its colonial and baroque past. Yet his influence extended far beyond his country. Even his lesser works were a counterpoint to reductive notions of Modernist architecture as blandly functional.

However, once Brasilia was completed, it was largely considered a failure:

Brasília soon became a symbol of Modernism’s failure to deliver on its utopian promises. The vast empty plazas seemed to sum up the social alienation of modern society; surrounded by slums, the monumental government buildings of its center exemplified Brazil’s deeply rooted social inequalities.

Though the article claims Niemeyer’s reputation was eventually restored, Brasilia remains, in my opinion and that of many urbanists I’ve read or talked to, a spectacular failure.

The problem is that it’s devoid of people in a haunting, almost sublime way. The last time I visited, for example, I remarked to Laura that walking in the center of Brasilia was like walking through a post-apocalyptic film; the infrastructure was all there but the people were conspicuously absent.

One of the problems is that Brasilia was designed almost exclusively for the car. It has big, wide highways curving around Niemeyer’s striking buildings, but few useful sidewalks connecting destinations. And because it’s a car-centric city, the distances are extraordinarily. In 2010, Laura and I tried to walk from the main government buildings to a well-known pizza restaurant. In Provo, the walk would have taken us maybe 30 minutes. In Brasilia, it took three hours and required repeatedly climbing through bushes, over highways, and through tangles of modernist housing projects. It was a disaster.

One of Brasilia’s other main problems is that it was designed for a finite population size that was long surpassed. The result is that the glittering city has been surrounded by ever more distant slums (which coincidentally are more vibrant in many cases).

Many of these problems can be traced to Brasilia’s planner, Lucio Costa, rather than specifically to Niemeyer. And some of Niemeyer’s buildings are unquestionably interesting, especially in cities — Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, etc. — that grew up more organically.

But regardless of the problems the city remains noteworthy and fascinating. In some pockets — near that pizza place, for example — remarkable examples of vibrancy have popped up despite the design flaws. And whatever its faults, I like Brasilia for the boldness of its vision and experimentation; its an emotionally unsettling city, but in the end I probably wouldn’t be writing (Pro(vo)cation) if I hadn’t spent time there.

The National Museum.

The National Museum.

Walking away from the museum.

Walking away from the museum.

The National Congress Buildings.

The National Congress Buildings.

The TV Tower in the distance.

The TV Tower in the distance.

One of Brasilia's ultra modern churches.

The Don Bosco Sanctuary, one of Brasilia’s ultra modern churches.

Interior of the Cathedral of Brasilia.

Interior of the Cathedral of Brasilia.

The National Theater.

The National Theater.

This is the center of Brasilia, with the National Congress in the distance. It's not pleasant to walk through that area down below.

The Monumental Axis. This is the center of Brasilia, with the National Congress in the distance. It’s not pleasant to walk through that area down below.

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When Will State Street Stop Being Terrible?

There are a lot of horrible stroads out there, but State Street in Orem is one of the worst I’ve experienced. It is literally both a street running through a city and a highway.

State Street in Orem has mile after mile of this type of thing.

State Street in Orem has mile after mile of this type of thing.

It's like a dystopian nightmare, but not in a cool, movie kind of way.

It’s like a dystopian nightmare, but not in a cool, movie kind of way.

But there are signals on the horizon that State Street won’t always be so bad. In a recent article, my colleague Genelle Pugmire wrote that improving this street is a priority for Orem’s city government:

Councilwoman Mary Street said, “The appearance of State Street should change over the next 20 years.”

She and others in the visioning retreat believe it’s time to take the 5-mile-long downtown and redesign it in block groupings, with cultural arts, mixed retail, housing and other options. Many commented on wanting the intersection of State and Center streets to be redesigned as a downtown crossroads. Davidson said there are huge design opportunities for the area.

Stanford Sainsbury, development services director agrees. “We need to make State Street more interesting. We need to make a sense of place. We need to make more vibrant streets.”

One of the big problems with this street however, is its ownership. Because it’s part of Historic Highway 89 it’s owned by UDOT — a wildly less progressive organization than many city governments in Utah County — which means Orem is going to have to make concessions to things like traffic flow, high speeds, etc. So how can the city make it a more vibrant area without choking traffic?

The fantastic blog Stroad to Boulevard offers one possible solution: European-style boulevards. In a post on Cincinnati, the blog explains a big street “with little side lanes” for access. The idea is to accommodate fast traffic in the middle and slower traffic on the sides.

The Stroad to Boulevard post has some great images illustrating this idea. I’ve also seen it first hand in Spain and France (though I’m still trying to find my pictures of Paris):

A small side lane on a large boulevard in Barcelona.

A small side lane on a large boulevard in Barcelona. The lane on the left is dedicated to bus, but the other land is used for traffic. I’m not totally sure why this lane exists; there is no parking or even stopping so it’s not especially useful for reaching stores. However, this pair of lanes is smaller and isolated from the rest of the boulevard, which is just barely visible on the right side of the picture.

A boulevard with multiple lane types in Madrid.

Here’s another example from Madrid. In this picture, there are four lanes for fast traffic in the middle, with a smaller, slower lane (possibly for taxis) on the side. Whereas the lanes in first picture were separated with a wide pedestrian area, this lane simply has a small barrier setting it apart from the main street.

Those two pictures are perhaps not the best examples in the world — I wasn’t specifically trying to take pictures of the side lanes — but they should at least illustrate the way different areas of a street can be isolated to accomodate both fast and slow traffic.

In any case, the Stroad to Boulevard post also points out why this idea is important for the health of cities:

Different street designs either support, or do not support, economic activity. Government, with a monopoly on streets, must take the lead by designing streets that support local economies. Municipalities must retrofit stroads to true, complete streets for pleasant walking, cycling, transit before they can expect the private sector to develop beautiful homes and storefronts. It doesn’t work the other way around: nobody’s going to hang a flower basket on a highway.

I have no idea what is going to happen to State Street in Orem, or the multitude of other horribly oversized streets in Utah. But one advantage of having such a wide space is that this concept could actually work. And in the long run, that might transform State Street from one of the worst places I’ve experienced into one of the best.

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Filed under driving, travel

Happy Thanksgiving

This year, I’m particularly thankful that I’m about to live in a city with commuter rail — Frontrunner arrives in two weeks — among other transit options. So after you’ve stuff yourself with turkey and pie, enjoy this time-lapse video that shows the trip from Salt Lake to Provo on the Frontrunner.

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What Houses Close Together Look Like

Density, concentration, infill. These are ideas that mean grouping more people into smaller amounts of space and, unfortunately, they’re not always popular with the general public.

Reasons for public resistance to denser development vary, but I suspect one cause is that many people have never seen high quality, tightly packed homes. Luckily, however, Laura and a friend recently took these pictures of Capital Hill in Denver.

As I understand it, Capital Hill is a densely populated neighborhood that also happens to be quite desirable. In other words, space is at a premium but homes are still worth a lot of money and are filled with people who actually take care of them. That’s more or less what every neighborhood collectively wants, including those in downtown Provo. My hope, then, is that these pictures help show one way that somewhat higher density can work without turning into blight, “the projects,” or even stereotypically “big” cities. In fact, in Capital Hill, density has produced precisely the opposite of the things people often fear when it comes to density.

Capital Hill is filled with old mansions, but note how close together these homes are. They’re built in an architectural style called American Foursquare. They’re also very well maintained, and have small yards.

Capital Hill has many old homes that manage to co-exist with larger, newer buildings.

More older houses in close proximity to one another. In this picture, also notice how close to the street these homes are

These homes are also close to the street, and to each other. This picture further helps illustrate how street parking doesn’t disrupt or detract from a community; in Capital Hill, many well-to-do people store their cars on the street, but the neighborhood has continued to thrive.

Unlike streets in Provo, this street in Capital hill is narrow and moves only in one direction. And again, street parking and homes with shallow frontage work just fine.

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Filed under Development, neighborhood, parking, travel