[All images courtesy of Penguin unless noted otherwise]
Six years ago we sat down with author and Columbia GSAPP Professor Kate Ascher. Knee-deep in her west-coast book tour, we caught her in Seattle to discuss her mesmerizing trilogy on urban infrastructure, the power of a good graphic, and understanding complex systems. We hope you enjoy Part 1 of this interview from our archives; you may read Part 2 here.
In addition to teaching, you’ve published four books while holding positions at the New York Economic Development Corporation, The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Buro Happold Consulting. What life strategies do you practice in order to balance these demanding positions and still create time to write?
The honest answer is that I’m always on the edge of dropping the ball on something. On top of the books, my career, and teaching, I also have a couple of kids, and all the normal stuff that comes with life. It’s probably too much, but I like working and it’s a matter of fine-tuning. The books are really a hobby for me, they’re relaxing and fun. Some people knit or garden or meditate. I write books. When I’m on tour things are crazy for about a month, but those events are few and far between.
Tell us about your [former] role at Buro Happold, the UK engineering consultancy.
I [ran] the urban planning practice in the US. With a half dozen people, we [were] tiny compared to the UK team. They hired me to develop the practice in the US since I was already in the field.
Dealing with complex systems like rail, transportation, and water at the municipal level involves a great deal of intricacy and complexity. How do you ensure that the quality of your planning work gets carried through to the details?
of trusting the people around you, and building a bigger team that shares in the spirit of the project. If you work with good people, life is actually easy. If you’re working with people who either are not up for the job or are not as good a fit for the community, it’s much harder.
Your book, The Way to Go: Moving By Sea, Land, and Air, tackles the history of global transportation. How much of this research was study and how much was in-the-field experience?
The book is a collaboration with a graphic designer and a researcher who knows transportation well. Since the first book, The Works: Anatomy of a City (2005), the world has changed. Back then, my researcher and I had to go and talk to each individual involved. Now, it’s amazing what you can access on the internet; there are pictures and videos available of everything. There’s no need to go to the freight yard to see how they lay rail track. You can do nearly all of the primary research sitting at a desk with a good internet connection.
Is there a trust issue of what you find online versus being there and seeing with your own eyes?
I don’t think so, since you get more than one person’s take on an issue. For instance, if you want to find out what’s wrong with Bertha, the tunnel boring machine that got stuck under Seattle, find a user’s group of rail spotters and you’ll get twenty opinions instantly. Or check out the last conference of TBM manufacturers where they’re discussing why things got clogged up. There’s no need to do in-person legwork as primary research anymore. Once I do the draft of what I want to include, I run it by experts. Then I ask, “What am I missing?” I do this for accuracy, not comprehensiveness. It’s never going to be comprehensive. I like to cover what is fun and interesting in a way that’s broadly accurate. Nobody’s building structures or vehicles based on my book, so I’m not worried about details, but I don’t want to mislead people either.
Tell us a bit about the graphic designer you work with on the books.
My graphic designer, George Kokkinidis, is a genius. He was employed at Alex Isley, the firm that did graphics for my first book. He has six to eight designers all around the country, and I believe one is in Seattle. George and I design the books together, then we commission the graphic work out and continue to refine the format. A lot of work goes into the books, and he’s extremely good at what he does. He now has his own company, Design Language.
Do you attribute part of the success of your books to their ability to visually draw people in?
I’d say the text is secondary to the imagery. People like being able to open the books to any page and immediately see pictures that allow them to figure things out. The text provides context, but the graphics are what actually do the teaching—the experience is childlike. My first book was inspired by David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work. When it first came out, it was completely different than anything else I’d seen. Even though I’m not an engineer, the information was accessible. I thought, “That’s cool, why hasn’t anyone explained a city like this? Or a skyscraper?”
How do the books translate into your teaching?
I teach a course on the skyscraper and another on infrastructure, but instead of teaching to architects and engineers, my students are in the real estate, urban design, and urban planning programs. Like the books, my teaching aims to broaden the perspective of a wider audience.
Your books on buildings, cities, and transportation networks might appear to create the perfect trilogy of the built environment. What will you do next?
I’d like to say, Nothing. My publisher convinced me there should be three since it makes for the possibility of a special edition release later when I’m no longer writing. The books take a lot of work, and I don’t make any money off of them. After the third book was published, I said I was done, but my son has an idea for a fourth. First, I’m taking a couple years off to work on an academic project for Columbia University, which will be more of an art book, and any encore to this series would come out after that, in 3-4 years. This time, I’m going even bigger. I can’t say more than that. I already know how it would come together, so it’s likely going to happen. Each one of the books is a piece of art and they cost a fortune to produce but the publisher’s been game so far, as she loves niche books.
There is a section in The Works: Anatomy of a City that describes how the garbage truck network in NYC can quickly convert into a snow plow system. It demonstrates a clever and industrious planning maneuver. Are there other methods to double up the effectiveness of a city’s resources that we’re not tapping into yet?
There are a couple of examples that come to mind. The obvious one involves the existing network of underground pipes and conduits below most cities. The question to ask is: If you’re going to add or modify something like a transportation tunnel, are you also thinking about adding and/or updating infrastructure that benefits from the same work? There is another good example in Malaysia where a highway tunnel converts into a flood mitigating measure. During typhoon season, the tunnel can be shut down and switched to a stormwater channel. It’s a cool example of how to look at systems holistically.
You’ve taken some complicated subject matters, like the garbage and recycling systems of NYC, and have made them clear and compelling. How do you process complex information for communication to the masses?
Any of these books would be very hard to write if I were an engineer; because I’m not, the material initially needs to be intelligible to me. I am the first filter in a sense. The highly technical engineering parts of the books are not understandable to me unless they’re explained in very basic layperson terms. Each book has covered a system that I didn’t really understand at first, and I had to work at making it comprehensible to someone else. That’s the filter the books have to go through. Some of the concepts are difficult, like how airplanes fly, which is a little complicated when you get into it. Trying to depict it graphically is also challenging. We spend a long time figuring all of that out.
You must have a bag of discarded diagrams as a result of the weeding-out process.
There are many ideas that get tossed, but those ideas don’t get too far along before we weed them out. Each graphic has a whole process tied into it. At my talk earlier this week in New York, I had the graphic designer there for the last ten minutes. He took three examples of how a graphic evolves: design, context, and delight. We’ve worked together for years, but it was the first time I heard him articulate what differentiates a good graphic from a bad one, and how you start with something and make it better and better. It was very interesting, and I wish I could’ve brought him out here.
The design of information is obviously very important to you based on the beautiful diagrams in your books. How does design play a successful role in urban planning policy?
It doesn’t always. It requires having people in government who care about good design. There are, of course, people who care less about the design and focus more on the function. It can become a tug of war.
Are you always analyzing? Are you able to turn on a faucet without thinking about the logistical chain of events that bring clean, hot water to your sink?
When I was writing The Works, I was thinking about that much more. Now it’s transportation. I was just asked about risks on airplanes. There’s no point in trying to calculate all the risks. You’re either on that plane or you’re not. It’s better to just forget about it. You’ll make yourself crazy otherwise.
What would you say is the best mistake you ever made?
Probably the books. They could be seen as a mistake since I lost my shirt financially on the first one. If I had known how tough it would be, I wouldn’t have done it. But it turned out to be something I get a lot of pleasure from. The nice thing about these books now is that there are three of us and the process is hassle-free and phenomenally interesting. Imagine picking out things that interest you, asking the questions, and getting the answers. Plus, if you like graphic design, it’s fun to create the pictures and see them published. And somebody is allowing me to do all that.
What’s on your nightstand? What are you currently reading?
I’m reading Stoner by John Edward Williams. It’s a lost novel, recently rediscovered, and it’s being talked about as an American classic.
Kate Ascher worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the New York City Economic Development Corporation, and Buro Happold Consulting. She serves as Milstein Professor of Urban Development at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture and Planning. Her books include The Works: Anatomy of a City, The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper, The Way to Go: Moving by Sea, Land, and Air.