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11.25.2003

Blinders
We all get junk mail. It's horrendous. And the process of learning to discriminate between absolute crap and an important jury summons is ongoing, even for a cynical person like myself. Every year, direct mailers come up with new tricks - computer generated handwriting, bulk mail stamps - that I fall for and subsequently file away under "apparent truths to be ignored". Metropolis magazine has an interesting article this month (no link available) on the challenges direct mailers (DM's, not to be confused with "Dungeon Masters") face in manipulating their audience into viewing their wares. Color schemes, cartoons, authenticity of address, size of envelope, all are carefully studied and employed in an attempt to reach the 2% response mark, the standard of success by which DM campaigns are measured.
It's an interesting piece, especially reading the quotes from DM graphic designers and hearing them justify a career in junk mailing. But the larger consequence of this arms war - DMs are constantly trying sneak through the blinders we construct and we are perpetually redesigning our blinders to keep them out - is that Americans are forced to pay attention to less and less of the world. There is too much information out there, and that which is specifically designed to interest us proves worthless. The onus of this should be spread across the advertising industry, not just placed on the shoulders of DMs. (Although they are certainly everyone's least favorite advertiser) And this is coming from someone who appreciates advertising, even big billboards, when done well. But the problem remains: urban dwellers are forced to build bigger blinders in order to only receive input from sources they trust. And because the blinders we construct are inevitably flawed, they end up closing the door on information we may benefit from. Since the arms war escalates, we build our blinders bigger than they need to be in order to outpace advertisers. Since so much of the stimulus we are forced to sift through proves worthless, it is often easier to just forgo new information entirely unless given to you by family or friends.
It is this same mentality of retreating from the onslaught of stimulus that plays into people leaving the city and shuttering ourselves from the craziness of urban life.
The solution to this, I believe, is to teach people new ways to filter information and thus change our learned response to stimulus (which in general can be summed up by, "oy. make it stop."). How to do this? I'm working on it. I'm working on it. Urban Design that rewards curiosity with worthwhile information as well as a comforting environment plays an important part. By giving people comfort and information at the same time, people can be taught that learning is not a grueling chore.

11.20.2003

Dueling Griefs
In a New York Times article that addresses the different agendas of people whose relatives perished in the WTC, this jaw-dropping paragraph caught my eye:

Rosaleen Tallon, 32, whose 26-year-old brother, Sean Patrick Tallon, a firefighter, died rescuing victims of the terrorist attacks, said that 14 Fire Department families were ready to remove their relatives' names from the memorial if they were listed along with civilians.

While I can understand the desire to call out the courage of the firefighters who ran into the burning towers, insinuating that ordinary civilians don't deserve to be listed beside them is truly sick. They all died gruesomely.
As my friend John says, "This kind of thing really brings out the worst in people. Unfortunately, some people have more worst than others."
WTC Finalists
The eight finalists for the WTC memorial have been announced. I'm not impressed. The real challenge in this memorial's design, it seems to me, is to achieve two mutually exclusive goals: the creation of a somber, contemplative memorial as well as a life-affirming activity on the site that reflects the dynamism of capitalist New York. Nobody seems to have accomplished this. Or, more accurately, nobody who accomplished this has been selected as a finalist.
I'll be the first to say that it's difficult to create a public quiet space in lower Manhattan - this is hardly the Mall in Washington, DC - and it's doubly hard to design a contemplative space that keeps the outside out enough to remain contemplative without making it exclusive, or barren. I do like the use of water in the constantly refilling pools in one finalist's design, but I worry that the space will be avoided after the initial buzz wears off.
Perhaps it is because nobody I knew died in the tragedy, but I see the need for a rebirth as being stronger than the need for quiet memorials. I'll go farther. I think rebirth is the perfect memorial - it reflects a determined spirit and a tireless energy.
The quiet space could be moved off site, say to the water's edge. I had proposed constructing two square coffer dams in the Hudson River with the tops being just below the waterline. This would allow water to be perpetually filling up the two holes in the water (and pumped out at the bottom), symbolizing the healing process. Visitors could walk around the edges of the holes on docks, peering down.
The WTC site itself, though, should be an active space. Leaving a scarred hole in the middle of lower Manhattan will only create an unhealable wound.

11.19.2003

Connections
I am obsessed with connections, with helping people to see how they are linked with each other, to places, to history, and how their actions have repurcussions. I think this is a major cause of the dysfunction in American culture, this disconnect. People are pulling further and further away from each other in an attempt to simplify their lives, but loneliness and lack of meaning results.
Friendster is a thinly veiled singles website that has been hijacked to create a community. People create webpages describing themselves and can link their online profile to pages of people they know, pending approval. Users can then scan through anyone who is within three degrees of separation. High school friends end up being friends of people you've met in other places. The social network becomes visible.
GroupHug offers users an anonymous opportunity to confess their sins. Ironically, the site uses the anonymity of contemporary urban life (and online existence) to create a community of confession.
How is this relevent to urban design? We need to design buildings and spaces that help people realize how the different pieces of the city are related to each other and to the people who use them. We need to find a way to satisfy people's desires (dating, confessing) while simultaneously linking them to their surroundings or showing them how they are already linked.

11.18.2003

East River Runway
Michelle O'Donnell writes in the New York Times today about the small fleet of seaplanes that run from the East River out to the summer homes in the Hamptons.
Seaplane pilots are often recruited from Alaska to fly the rich straight from a dock at 23rd Street to their weekend getaways. This makes me smile. One of the pilots, Eric Atkins, doesn't like to wear shoes while flying. Or in the winter. I try to imagine his conversation with the mutual fund managers who fly with him. It is difficult to imagine common ground.
Flying into New York is always breathtaking for me, and I imagine it being even more so in a small propellor plane. Commercial jets today are more like flying cities than planes. There is food, restrooms, customer service, comfort. But propellor planes keep their occupants aware of the task at hand. They bump, they dip, they are loud and unruly. They are much more clearly at the mercy of the wind. Something about the tininess of the seaplanes weaving among the immensity of the city and landing on the one spot of unused real estate in all of Manhattan, the water, is truly beautiful. It reminds me of sailing into Boston Harbor. Drydocks on one side, Logan Airport on the other, and a tiny little tub powered only by the wind in the middle.
Quane
Taking a long walk home from my friend Jon's house out in Glen Park on Sunday, I found Quane Street, a long alley that slinks from 24th to 21st Street, running between Guerrero and Dolores. It is a little prize of an alley, not because it is particularly beautiful, or quaint, but because it's a little bit ugly in a refreshingly pretty way.
I walked north as the hill climbed Dolores Heights, very narrow on either side. It felt European in it's narrowness. Fifteen feet wide? Seventeen? And not that long either, only stretching three blocks. But because two to three story buildings back right up to the right-of-way in places, it feels like a high school hallway: long, narrow, vaguely monotonous on the edge but with different activities behind every window.
There were no pretty curbs, no street trees, no effort given to create an attractive pedestrian environment. Thank god. It's not a walking street. It's the catwalk behind a theater set, looking down and out at the juicy details the audience doesn't see. Different shades of asphalt reach out from garages and muddle the street edge, showing where homeowners tried to level out driveways and give their cars a safe landing spot. Fences lean, are propped up by two by fours. A short, scraggly tree with knobbly branches stands indifferently, arms crossed, in a narrow band of gravel between fence and alley. For a second I thought it was a grumpy old grandmother of an apple tree, but I was mistaken. No fruit.
It is an intimate spot, Quane Street. I didn't see a single person the whole time I was there. A refuge, I suspect, from the overly presentable street facades for which San Francisco is famous. It's a lazy Sunday in sweats after a Saturday night out on the town.
At 23rd Street, a homeowner has created a semi-enclosed outdoor room by painting the driveway green and putting the washer and dryer outside along with a worktable. Clothes are there for the taking. The space is hemmed in on three sides by walls - two from the house, one from the neighbor's garage. A spiral staircase climbs upwards, cutting a perfect circle through two decks and connecting all three floors.
It's interesting to me because urban designers spend a lot of energy trying to make cities livable again, pretty. This means masking density and planting trees everywhere. Walkable Streets, like Bay Street (Mall) in Emeryville, or the faux European shopping street up in Corte Madeira. My sister tells me that, sadly, these places are great for families. They can shop and let their kids run around without worry. She says that she watches a show on the Home and Garden channel where interior decorators visit a home, usually in Orange County, and remake it with input from the owners. It is "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" only with a house instead of a person. Nine times out of ten people want their homes to look like Tuscany. How the hell are you going to make a deck house in Orange County look like Tuscany? I mean besides using hallucinagenics.
I know we can do better. I know we can, for the same cost that we are spending on these urban main street malls, build places that aren't wearing a plastic Italian mask. Why are we so afraid of ugly? Quane is a little bit ugly, and it's that much more beautiful for it.

11.14.2003

ZIP It
Today's New York TImes has an article on what's in store for the ZIP code 10048. the former ZIP code of the Twin Towers. Not the most profound article, but it's interesting to think that people are feeling nostalgic for a ZIP code.
Links
Check out my friend Sam's new blog, Green Eggs & Sam. Random thoughts from a random man.
Belly Button Lint
In the biographical New Yorker article this week, the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly describes good comedy. "When you're doing it right...you become the sort of fluff in people's belly buttons. You become something they wear, something they carry around...It's not because you've said something terribly funny; it's because you've reminded them of something very bright in their lives."
This definition of one aspect of success - resonance - extends beyond comedy into urban design (and all other art forms). The goal of urban design is to remind people that they are here and now, to pull them away from their distractions and help them to exist in the present. This can be accomplished through aesthetics, through education, through social or architectural interaction, through the provocation of curiosity, or, as Connolly mentions, through the reworking of existing ideas to remind visitors of something in their personal history. It's the timelessness that Christopher Alexander takes such pains to describe. Beautiful things are all good and well, but beautiful places that link with a past experience increase both the meaning and value of both.

11.07.2003

Shared Privacy
In his regular column in Metropolis, Paul Goldberger writes a wonderful piece about how the public use of cellphones chips away at the shared experience of public spaces. It's ironic that a technology that aims to connect people accomplishes exactly the opposite. People can call distant relatives, but no longer interact with the person sitting next to them.

11.05.2003

It Won't Fit on a Plaque
Bolinas voted yesterday to define the town as, "a socially acknowledged nature-loving town because to like to drink the water out of the lakes to like to eat the blueberries to like the bears is not hatred to hotels and motor boats. Dakar. Temporary and way to save life, skunks and foxes (airplanes to go over the ocean) and to make it beautiful."
That about sums it up, I think.

11.04.2003

History in a Vacuum
This month's Metropolis includes an interesting story about the redesign of Philadelphia's Liberty Bell Center, the building that houses the Liberty Bell. The old Center was aligned on the center axis of Independence Mall, giving visitors to the Liberty Bell a view with Independence Hall in the background. Problem is, from the existing vantange point, the Hall is flanked by two 375' skyscrapers.
In the revamped center, the bell is shifted off the center axis, allowing a view of the Hall with only trees in the background. And since the area is now a historical landmark, no new skyscrapers will be springing up anytime soon to ruin the view.
This raises a question: why is it so important to block out the now when looking at the past? I have found that I learn the most from history when I am forced to compare it to current events. If, as my girlfriend argues, this is an attempt to make the viewing of history more accessible to the general public by simplifying the exhibit and covering up all distractions, then I think we are making a mistake by dumbing it down.
So often TV news defends its tabloid journalism by saying that they are only giving the public what it wants. Here, too, I think designers are making the same mistake. We have a responsibility to educate, not cater to, visitors seeking historical information. If people want an unobstructed, uncluttered view of Independence Hall behind the Liberty Bell, then I can understand that. The designers should then take pains to separate the interior environment from the exterior environment: encourage hustle and bustle outside by placing food vendors around the building and create a quiet interior space so that visitors perhaps feel that they are stepping back in time. When they step out of the exhibit and come face to face with the vastly different environment of 2003, the power of the visit will be enhanced. Perhaps that is part of the plan, the article doesn't say.

11.03.2003

Other Michigan Thoughts
My father remarked no less that three times that the streets in the Detroit area are smoother than anything in San Francisco. Was it because of the higher demand for attention that roads in four-season regions demand? Was it because of the automobile lobby? I put my money on the latter.

I spend no small amount of time contemplating how to make public transit work in San Francisco. It seems feasible. Detroit renewed my cynicism.

Driving around Farmington, West Bloomfield, and Birmingham with my parents, at least six times they performed the homecoming ritual of shaking their head disbelievingly and muttering, "[Road name], wow." What is it about invoking the name of a place as you visit it that makes it more real? The idea of the place you grew up in and have not visited floats around in your head as you age. It comes and it goes. But by pronouncing its name you tie it down, put an anchor on it, and reaffirm that it still exists. Not enough care goes into the naming of places in America. In fifty years, everyone will be saying the same street name and shaking their heads remembering different places. Does this make us a larger community or just more watered-down?

Seeing all the mile roads in Detroit (8 Mile Road, 12 Mile Road, etc.), I was reminded of something I've always wanted to do: work on a rural greenfield project far off in the mountains and, hidden among the Oak Lanes, Crestline Boulevards, and Winter Creek Roads, name a street 'East 237th'. To keep people on their toes and all.
Pulling up the Roots
I was back in Michigan this last week, my homecountry. Both my parents grew up in suburban Detroit, so while it doesn't roll off the tongue in the same way as, say, "Mother Russia," it is nevertheless where my ancestors lie. My maternal grandfather's grave was one among many. In a small cemetery off a major arterial street, it was crowded with headstones.
"It looks like a village, so crowded," my grandmother said. "Like a shtetl," my father agreed. It took us a few minutes to find his headstone, and we were aided by the fact that someone had the foresight to inscribe his name on the back of his headstone: Papa Charlie.
My father's father's grave was harder to find. In a huge cemetery with winding roads and beautiful trees, his was hidden; in this place, the headstones were flush with the grass. We stopped by the groundskeeper's building and my father ran in and grabbed a map, one showing the entire site and another one zoomed in. We found him and cleaned the maple leaves off his stone.
My family is cohesive. We tell stories about our past and try not to lose our roots. I grew up in one house, the same house, and my parents only left the New England town where I grew up in order to move closer to where I and my siblings had settled and had grandchildren.
But still, finding the graves of my grandfathers was difficult. We had not been there in years. We don't even know where some of our great uncles and aunts lie. It occurs to me that in the transient culture that America fosters, where the history and connections to place are becoming less and less significant, that the future of cemeteries is bleak, or at least muddled. In a land where both family and geographic bonding is withering, how much longer are people going to be visiting the graves of their ancestors? Even if they want to, will they be able to find it? Are we going to see the birth of a new way to remember our past?

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