By JoAnn Greco
The urbanist pantheon — Jan Gehl, Jane Jacobs, Fred Kent, Leon Kreir, William H. Whyte and the like — is replete with those who, even if they do practice architecture or planning, have made their name principally as theorists. But not only has Vishaan Chakrabarti written a book, A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for Urban America (2013), that’s frequently found on the shelf alongside those great thinkers, the 56-year-old architect and planner is constantly working, putting muscle behind his faith that the urbanist virtues of density and public space are key to making the world a better place.
In Philadelphia, those precepts are playing out in his involvement in the design and planning for Schuylkill Yards, the mega mixed-use development under construction near 30th Street Station. Also ahead: a new book for 2023, The Architecture of Urbanity: Designing Cities for Pluralism and Planet that more closely look at how cities can address climate change and equity issues, and several high-visible projects undertaken by his firm PAU, including the expansion of Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a master plan for Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, and the adaptive re-use of Brooklyn’s iconic Domino Sugar Refinery.
Primed for a life “as a good Indian boy who would study engineering,” the Kolkota-born Chakrabarti immigrated to the United States with his family when he was a toddler. He dutifully majored in engineering (and art history) at Cornell and upon graduation briefly joined the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as a transportation planner before moving on to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill as an urban planner. He left the firm then came back again, armed with advanced degrees in architecture and city planning.
From there, his career trajectory morphed and shape-shifted between government (notably, a stint as planning director for Manhattan during the Bloomberg era), practice (at a smaller studio, SHoP), real estate (Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust) and academia (teaching real estate development at Columbia and most recently assuming the deanship of University of California, Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design). Not surprisingly, he has thoughts on how varied workplaces might fare going forward, especially as the pandemic accelerates our adaptation of technologies like virtual meetings and asynchronous learning.
“Rather than the kinds of work, it’s important to talk about the sizes and cultures of the offices,” Chakrabarti says. “Government and design firms are both very collaborative. They’re environments that can’t entirely be replaced or replicated by technology and they thrive on small teams. Academia is a bit different,” he continues. “Faculty has always gravitated toward the solo work of research and writing. Still, the experience of being in a classroom and on campus together is hard to duplicate.”
How this all plays out for downtowns is up in the air, he believes. “Cities are now for people who love them,” Chakrabarti proclaims, echoing the opening salvo of a New York Daily News op-ed he penned earlier this year. “I bring my experience from post-9/11 to this. Skyscrapers were dead, cities were dead, and all the rest, and I think what lies behind a lot of those kinds of prognostications is an anti-city bias, a fundamentally flawed premise that human beings don’t like being around each other. That we only started congregating and producing out of economic necessity. But most early cities weren’t just markets, they were spiritual centers, they were cultural magnets. The notion that young people will be content with graduating from college, living in their parents’ basements and Zooming while wearing their sweatpants is absurd.”
Which isn’t to say that how we work together won’t look different. Although he likes the idea of coworking, he’s “less bullish” on hoteling because it’s “unclear yet how to make people feel that they are part of a team. The real estate savings may not be not worth the loss of workplace culture. Also, there’s a huge piece of me that worked for city government that understands that in order to have parks, subways, schools and all of our other social infrastructure, we need a really strong tax base and office buildings need to remain a critical part of that mix.”
Obviously, the challenges facing big cities are compounded by other factors, such as cost of living, crime, and the sorry state of public schools. “It’s interesting that New York City elected a former police officer as mayor,” Chakrabarti says. “There’s a deep pragmatic streak from people who remember the ‘70s, they don’t want those days to return.” That mindset is particularly significant for a one-industry town like San Francisco, since tech workers can be nomadic and aren’t especially place-loyal, he continues. “If you ask people why they live in San Francisco, they’ll tell you that they can get to nature in an hour,” he says. “But ask the same question in London or New York or Tokyo and I guarantee the response won’t be ‘because I can leave easily….’”
As for Philadelphia, he praises its great cultural institutions and relatively affordable housing but says the “clear sense that people have a notion of what it means to be a Philadelphian is what’s really key. That’s what’s going to make great cities greater, post-pandemic.”
Chakrabarti was a partner at SHoP when the firm developed the master plan for Schuylkill Yards, and PAU is the architect behind its JFK Towers, two buildings with more than 1.5 million square feet of office, residential and retail space. “I’m a huge believer in creating this whole other node and have been since before terms like ’15 minute city’ became popular,” he says. “If there’s any place to do that, it’s there. Schuylkill Yards a case study for when it comes to investing in great buildings and public spaces. At PAU we are always pulling for making a public environment more diverse and inclusive with spaces to buy and eat a sandwich, to protest, and to encounter the unexpected,” he continues. “With Drexel Square, there was a lot of back and forth about adding another building versus open space. We argued for the latter as an anchor and asset for the neighborhood. The world lives in a set of bubbles and often my job is to break down those boundaries and create connection.”
In many ways, the development is the perfect project for a guy who in his first book linked true urbanism with “trains, towers and trees.” Still, he acknowledges that Philadelphia’s big shoulders squarely rest on a base of thousands of small single-family homes. “I’ve come a long way since 2013,” he admits freely. “I will always love a great skyscraper but my thinking and work has gravitated toward low-rise, high-density.”
In a recent TED talk, he offers a solution that reconciles the need for the world to eventually house another couple of billion people with the necessity of building those domiciles so they are carbon negative. Neither suburban-style single family homes with their attendant sprawl and car-centric lifestyles nor urban towers are the answer. Instead, he imagines row homes, amped up in scale to hold dozens of family units and adorned with solar panels and other green tools. “The answers are hiding in plain sight,” he concludes. “We just have to look for them.”
With over twenty-five years of proven experience authoring and implementing visionary urban architecture, Vishaan Chakrabarti is the Founder and Creative Director of PAU and the author of the highly acclaimed book, A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America.
JoAnn Greco is a freelance writer and frequent contributor for PlanPhilly, the Philadelpia Inquirer, and Philadelphia Daily News.
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