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Weekend Reads: Natural Architecture; Masterplanning Iraq

Welcome to Curbed's new weekly roundup of architecture, real estate, and urban planning-related feature stories from, well, anywhere that isn't Curbed. We'll be collecting a few of our favorite longer stories of the week; please be in touch if you have a story to recommend.

1. The Guardian takes a fascinating look at the way China has replicated the American suburbs over the past 15 years—including all the mistakes that make for less-than-ideal living situations.

Besides expunging cycle lanes, China's leaders have also inflicted Dallas' car culture and Atlanta's endless sprawl on their country. The "towers in a park" housing blocks championed by Le Corbusier and others have found a second life in cities from Shanghai to Suzhou – never mind their mixed-results elsewhere. The desire to escape sardine conditions in these superblocks, where greenery often consists of sickly shrubs gasping between six-lane roads, has in turn multiplied the number of land-devouring compounds like Rancho Santa Fe. Homeowners there have contributed to the gridlock and pollution, owing in part to another problematic template that's enchanted China's planners: Houston-style financial districts packed with towering glass boxes that are inhospitable to street life, all but abandoned in the evenings and far from people's homes. 2. The Charleston Gazette profiles the West Virginia city's first black architect, whose son recently donated a collection of his architectural drawings to the West Virginia State Archives. John C. Norman trained as an architect and structural engineer and opened his own practice in 1919.

Norman was keenly aware of the disconnect between being a black man supporting the integration efforts of Walter White and the NAACP, while designing structures with separate facilities for blacks and whites. "He was very conscious of the work he was doing and the time in which he was doing it," said his son. "But he never really talked about it — he seemed to transcend it. It was just something left unspoken." 3. Does "natural architecture" really address the problems humans face when it comes to the environment? Or is natural architecture just "design-world hubris," as Dushko Petrovich wonders in The Boston Globe?

Humans have long made structures with what is directly at hand, but this trend is something different. Though there are parts of the world where people still live in thatched huts, this new brand of architecture is emerging out of places where non-natural, machine-made constructions are the norm. In this context, the natural materials represent a choice rather than a strict necessity, and the hand-built ethos is a self-conscious step away from the long march of technology. Where conventional architecture separates us from nature for protection, natural architecture intends a kind of reversal: salvation through exposure and connection. (Related, and also worth reading: Dana Goodyear's exploration of "greenwashing" and "goodwashing" in the New Yorker.)

4. Only one staffer at English firm Garsdale Design has ever been to Iraq, but the firm has been commissioned to design masterplans for four Iraqi cities. The Guardian looks at how that happened.

"We can't go to Iraq because it's too dangerous, but our colleagues there can do a lot of the survey work on the ground for us," says Derrick, as he breaks off from responding to clients' final comments on one of the consultancy's masterplans. Derrick did attend a meeting in the Kurdish city of Erbil, but otherwise the face-to-face meetings with Iraqi planners have taken place outside Iraq – in Istanbul, for example, or even in the Cumbrian town of Kendal, 10 miles down the road from the Hartleys' barn. 5. A former Goldman Sachs analyst recently launched CityShares Bedford-Stuyvesant, "an investment platform seeking to capitalize on the neighborhood's sharp growth." Is the company on the side of good or bad in the NYC neighborhood's gentrification fight? Next City wonders:

A middle-class renter looking to buy his first house in his neighborhood has to compete with more than just CityShares. There are the affluent home buyers pushed east from Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Williamsburg, even Manhattan. But more than that, they have to compete with the mysterious "foreign interests," and institutional investors like the Blackstone Group and Colony Capital, which have been gobbling up properties all over Brooklyn with all-cash buys and converting single-family homes to market-rate apartments. Last November, a rep from brokerage firm Douglas Elliman estimated as much as 70 percent of the firm's expected sales for 2014 were to be to hedge funds and other investors. With its appeal to smaller investors who place a value on place, CityShares Bedford-Stuyvesant certainly seems less shrouded. · Recommended Reading archive [Curbed National]