Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Tag Archives: Architecture

Interview with Peter Calthorpe

​Peter Calthorpe, one of the most well-known innovators in urban design in the world, had a discussion with senior Ma’ayan Dembo on how he started in this field, his views on urbanism in the age of climate change, high speed rail, and the controversial Saltworks project.  In this interview, Mr. Calthorpe also discussed his Vision California project and what California can do to lead the world in designing for cities that have a lower carbon footprint and have better transportation and urban amenities.
Mr. Calthorpe has written extensively about urban design.  His most recent books include:
Mr. Calthorpe’s interview with KZSU’s Maayan Dembo was broadcast on KZSU on April, 24th 2014 on the Modern Tek News news show, and is available from this link.

The Baths of Caracalla


This weekend I saw the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, the Pantheon, and the Vatican, and although all of these monuments far exceeded my expectations, it was a lesser known monument—the Baths of Caracalla—which truly blew me away. The Caracalla facilities (Terme di Caracalla) are generally agreed to be the most elaborate of the Ancient Roman baths. I haven’t seen the others, but I am inclined to believe this after my visit to the ruins.

I have been trying to think of a modern equivalent for the past few days and I simply cannot think of a a place that matches both the scale and social importance of the Caracalla site. As impressive as the other sites are, I can think of contemporary equivalents: the Coliseum is the precursor to the modern stadium (Wembley Stadium in London, Cape Town (FIFA) Stadium, Beijing “Nest” Stadium are a few noteworthy examples), the Forum is to Rome as the Mall is to Washington D. C., and Palatine Hill is the Ancient Roman version of Beverley Hills. It is this unfamiliarity with the public baths that was so captivating, and as difficult as it was, I was determined to visualize the ancient atmosphere of each and every room.

The Baths were begun in the 3rd century AD and it is estimated that 9,000 laborers installed 2,000 tons of raw material each day for 6 straight years in order to complete the massive complex a mile south of the Forum (the ancient city center). And massive is really the best adjective I can think of to describe this place. In total the complex covered approximately 33 acres and the main building stood about 12 stories high. In addition to the three central bathing halls—the caldarium (hot), tepidarium (warm), and frigidarium (cold)—there were two gyms (most commonly used for wrestling and ball games), an Olympic-sized outdoor swimming pool, two libraries (one with Greek literature and one with Latin literature), a courtyard for socializing and performances, shops, restaurants, and even sleeping quarters for visitors.


This sounds like some of the “super” malls that can be found in America, and I would agree except for the fact that that bathing was a daily activity for most Roman citizens. The baths were not a luxury spa experience or an amusement park for the rich, but a public meeting space and a social right in the ancient capital.

Although the baths were left to deteriorate after the aqueduct system was damaged in the 6th century, they remain a significant site for Romans. When Rome hosted the 1960 Olympics, the baths served as a shell for the gymnastics facilities. Since 1937, the Teatro Dell’Opera di Roma has used Caracalla as a dramatic backdrop for its summer season, with performances by legends such as Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. A final fun fact: the architecture of the central frigidarium was so impressive that architects continue to replicate it nearly 2000 years later. The architects of Liverpool’s St. George’s Hall, Chicago’s Union Station, and New York’s Pennsylvania Station all visited Caracalla and studied the engineering before making their final blueprints. Does the video below look familiar for those of you who’ve been to these places? 

Have You Noticed the Construction?

Imagine if the average city recycled, renovated and constructed buildings as fast and as often as Stanford does. This might not be so remarkable until you realize how much construction Stanford actually carries out. I have lived on the campus for 10 years, and in that time buildings that I pass through at least once a week, such as, Maples Pavilion, the Football Stadium, the Alumni Center, the Arillaga Family Recreation Center, the Munger Graduate Residences, the majority of the Med School, the Hewlett and Packard Buildings, and the entire Engineering Quad were either built from scratch or completely gutted and built anew. Not to mention the Gunn Economics Building, the Knight Management School of Business, the new section of the Law School and the Arillaga Family Dining Commons that were all completed in the past year alone.  

Currently, Stanford has about 40 major projects underway (including the Bing Concert Hall, the Medical Center Renewal and Replacement, and the West Campus Wellness Center). What?  Maybe it is because we are always in a rush, maybe it is because we are biking not walking (See On the Road on Two Wheels), maybe it is because we only see the projects take baby steps, but I often overlook this substantial reshaping of our campus.  It took a massive crane and a heap of wreckage on Santa Teresa to open my eyes to the changes around me (in reality I had to close my eyes to avoid the clouds of debris). 


Demolition of the Terman Engineering Quad


Explore the full map of Stanford Projects here.

Stanford will always be Stanford by its landmarks—Hoover Tower, Mem Chu, The Quad, Palm Drive—but each generation of graduates leaves with a much different map of the campus than the last. I talked with a woman from the class of ’56 during Reunion Homecoming who said she barley recognized the campus and was simultaneously sad to lose the physical entities attached to her fond memories, but happy to see the progress of the University. How many reunions will it take until I don’t recognize the campus? At the rate Stanford’s building right now it seems like the 5th is a pretty good bet.   

A glimpse at the Stanford of the Future. Source

Cutting Corners

I recently returned from a trip to Argentina, where I spent the majority of my time in Buenos Aires. Of the many times I have been to Buenos Aires, this was by far the most interesting intellectually. My mom is Argentine, so I grew up traveling south every couple of years to visit her family. Because of this, I hadn’t seen many of the “touristy”–but of course, touristy for a reason—places of Buenos Aires. Of all of the beautiful European-style architecture, out-of-this-world food, and breath-taking music, one of the things that struck me the most about the city was the design of the streets, and more specifically, the corners.


Every corner in Buenos Aires is cut off so that all corner properties are irregularly shaped.  The name for these corners, ochavas, reflects the resulting octagonal shape of the blocks. In most buildings, it is only the ground floor that has the missing corner, leaving the top floors with an overhang that reminded me simultaneously of San Francisco’s bay windows and a precarious ledge waiting to collapse.

These corners may be a rather unusual thing to notice—though not for an Urban Studies student interested in design—but they serve many purposes that compensate for the buildings’ lost square footage.  I was thankful for them every time I was driven somewhere in the city, for intersections without stoplights have no stop or yield signs in any direction, giving the first car in the intersection right-of-way. With aggressive drivers and narrow streets, this is a recipe for disaster that would result in even more accidents if not for ochavas. Because of the missing chunk of building at each corner, visibility is extended many feet into the cross-street, giving drivers a better opportunity to see the taxi tearing across the intersection ahead of them and slow down, instead of getting broadsided.


Buenos Aires, like most dense cities, is made up of many independent shops instead of big-box retail. Bakeries, butcher shops, stationary stores, restaurants, book stores, shoe repair shops, and countless ice cream shops are interspersed throughout every residential street, and ochavas give an corner-property owners a chance to create impressive display windows or seating for customers. This extra wall seen from all angles also gives corner properties a definitive entrance, instead of having to choose one street to serve. In a city dominated by pedestrian activity, the wider sidewalk area also gives people a place to stand when waiting to cross the street. And when standing at any corner, intersections seem open and inviting, with signs and doors oriented towards the pedestrian.


Where did ochavas come from? Why are they a part of urban design in Buenos Aires, and not Los Angeles? Some sources explain that traditional corners cause dangerous collisions that become particularly unsafe when people are carrying goods, ladders, or are in a rush.  In the past, since many people carried canes or were armed, simple collisions could escalate into fights.  According to my mom, this explanation is both insufficient (normal corners exist throughout the world without any sort of social collapse) and incomplete: apparently, opening up corners with ochavas helped decrease cuchilladas, or stabbings, of people who were approaching intersections. With nowhere to hide, walking the streets of Buenos Aires became safer, and octagonal blocks became standard building practice mandated by the government by the early 20th century. Whatever the reason, they give character to the otherwise monotonous grid that characterizes the city, creating an urban aesthetic with softer edges.