Contextual Design. It's the New Black.
I've been having an email discussion with an acquaintance of mine about the best way to steer the greater design community towards an increased emphasis on making buildings and places that are contextual, that talk to their surroundings. The general consensus is that design school, and architecture school in particular, forge haughty designers by encouraging the use of lingo unintelligible to laypersons, by encouraging the design of buildings as if they existed on a clean white plane instead of in a city, and by condoning a focus on materials instead of holistic design.
I responded with this email:

like everything else out there, [the snottiness of contemporary architects like frank gehry has] a yin and a yang to it. on one hand, the trend to plunk down iconographic architecture wherever someone happens to own land and want a pretty building is starting to get out of control. it ends up creating superblocks, only prettier, and in the end that's no better. but on the other hand you sometimes need charismatic bastards like gehry in order to convince people to take a risk because the public has more to lose and thus is more conservative by virtue of the fact that it's their turf on which a designer builds. get rid of the designer's attitude and you take his salesmanship skills with him. it's a baby/bathwater situation.

what i'm saying is - and i just thought of this right now and am making it up as i go along - is that as
critics we need to be careful not to confuse the haughtiness of designers with their priorities. it's easy to hate uppity designers, but in the end i don't give a damn if they're snobby bastards and use rarified language just so long as they think designing in context is the hot new thing. that's the trick, i think, and the key to winning the battle. i think setting yourself up to wage war against the design community - asking them to stop using their fancypants lingo and to come back down to earth - that could take years if it ever succeeds. that's their homemade identity, after all. without that lingo and attitude they're just workers like everyone else and i don't see them giving that up any time soon. instead i think the devious strategy is to subtly convince them that designing in context is the new black, if you know what i mean. let them have their lingo and attitude because it does end up helping in some ways, just make them use it for needs more beneficial to the greater community.

how you do this, i'm not sure. maybe just start [your own firm] and don't be afraid to be hip, edgy, and
contextual all at the same time. lead the way.


Mmmm, Subway
This is the kind of article I love, about exploring the NYC subway for relics of the original line that stretched from City Hall up to Grand Central, across to the newly renamed Times Square, and on up the West Side to 145th Street.


Who Says Technology Doesn't Connect Us?
My friend Sam sent me this link that googles a random image filename - the type of gibberish filename that is produced by a digital camera - and produces a series of digital photos that have nothing in common except their nonsensical names. It's like getting everyone named Carl together and hearing their stories. It's like visiting every building with a marble column and exploring the basement. It's swallowing the city in one gulp.
Raising our Children and Razing our Cities
Michael Chabon, author of Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, writes a brilliant op-ed piece on the censorship of teenage art in the New York Times today. Spurred by the recent expulsion of a student from San Francisco's Academy of Art University for writing a graphically violent short story, Chabon writes that we are getting carried away with censorship. There are two money quotes:

The threat posed by these prosecutions to civil liberties, to the First Amendment rights of our young people, is grave enough. But as a writer, a parent and a former teenager, I see the workings of something more iniquitous: not merely the denial of teenagers' rights in the name of their own protection, but the denial of their humanity in the name of preserving their innocence.


We don't want teenagers to write violent poems, horrifying stories, explicit lyrics and rhymes; they're ugly, in precisely the way that we are ugly, and out of protectiveness and hypocrisy, even out of pity and love and tenderness, we try to force young people to be innocent of everything but the effects of that ugliness.

Chabon hits the nail on the head again and again, calling America to task for hypocritically demanding that teenagers stifle their fears and anger in the hopes that they will grow up to be stronger and happier than we are. The censorship is from good intentions, but exceedingly dangerous. You have to play the hand you're dealt, and in this case, if teenagers (or anyone, for that matter) have anxieties and fears, all the better to express them. Can teenagers learn to overcome their fears and anger by being forced to produce happy art? The instinctive answer is obviously not, although I wonder if some feedback loop could work on a small scale, much like how studies show that smiling makes you feel happy.
So what does any of this have to do with cities? I'll tell you. Cities are the children of our culture. In the same way that adults attempt to force their dreams for the future and desires to expunge the past on teenagers and their beahvior, designers and the culture at large does the same thing to buildings and cities. We construct buildings that celebrate only those pieces of the past that we want to remember and towers that celebrate what we hope for the future. It is the same desire in both parenting and designing. And in the same way that we hypocritically seek to impose innocence and beauty on teenagers, we do the same with neo-traditional architecture and urban design.
And the answer to both? You have to play the hand that you're dealt.


Fore score and seven...
It's time again for guerilla urban minigolf. This time it's called the 4th Bi-Annual Emperor Norton North Beach Open, and the course has changed. Come one, come all.
Afraid of the Edge
Urban Design is not artsy enough. The Bay Area has at least 20 planning/urban design firms, and not one of them can be defined as even remotely edgy. Why? There are at least three reasons. One, which I touched on briefly in the post titled "The Language and/of Design," is that design, like language, serves a dual role of function as well as aesthetics. At a certain level, urban design must create functional spaces for urban activity. Attention is paid to aethetics, but there is a low-level pervasiveness of an engineering-mindset to urban design. First get the practical goal out of the way, and then decorate the project. We fight it tooth and nail, but it persists. Part of the issue might be the relative youth of the field of urban design and planning - professions looking to acquire an air of authority often use obscure lingo and scientific-styled processes.
The second reason that urban design tends to be less edgy is that it is developer-driven. With huge sums of money on the table in every project, developers want to stick with known quantities when it comes to design. But architecture, which operates under the same set of rules, produces its share of edgy designers. Urban design, however, seems stuck in the grip of retrospective. Even when it attempts to instill a sense of personality in its projects (a very un-scientific aim), it resorts to linear thinking. The feel-good New Urbanist movement, which aspires to improve community life through a return to the fundamental principles of yesteryear's design, implements those principles using mathematically based guideline documents, requiring a certain amount of houses of such and such color and material on every block.
This leads me to the third reason. I work on those guideline documents, and for the life of me I can't figure out a better way to assure that the final product will reflect our intentions. Part of it is a desire to ensure that the homebuilders don't do too much ill-advised creative thinking, but all the same I find my liberal self in the position of a very stringent rule-writer. This probably speaks to the pervasiveness of the engineering line of thought in the field, because I fancy myself an out-of-the box thinker. There has got to be a better way to achieve the end result of improving community and aesthetics via design, but I can't see it yet. I often try and pare down the guideline documents I work on, feeling like a libertarian in the process. I think to myself that much like how the goal of good writing is to effectively communicate your message using as few letters as possible, the goal of good design guidelines ought to be to achieve your end with as few rules as possible.
Is urban design's lack of edginess due to an addiction to control? A reliance on conservative-leaning financial backing? A desire to seem more authoritative? Most likely a combination of all three. Regardless, we have got to break out.


Here's to a Sense of Place
Reading over someone's shoulder this morning on the commute, I noticed that there was an article in the Chron titled, "Readers Root for Giving Wine a Sense of Place."
I've mentioned before that "sense of place" is the catchword du jour in urban design, and it seems to mean all things to all people - it's the linguistic seal of approval for a project or design. It's a pet peeve of mine for two reasons. First because designers use the phrase as a critical thought defense. Once a design is deemed to have a sense of place, regardless of who says it, everyone smiles and nods their heads knowingly and stops inspecting the design to see if it actually makes sense. It's as close as you get in the real world to Obi Wan waving his hand mysteriously and saying, "These are not the droids you're looking for."
Second, it drives me nuts because I don't even think the phrase is accurate. The more I hear the phrase used in different arenas (and it's use has spread far beyond urban design), the more I realize that it's not about place but connections. It is about making sense of a thing as a result of knowing it's relationship to its surroundings. It would seem to be a small difference, but I think it's important. "Sense of Place" as originally used in urban design texts implied the creation of a well-defined space in the midst of the city - as opposed to a strip mall with vague edges. But now it's used in linguistics and here, in reference to wine. The letter to the editor that the headline refers to questions why vintners refuse to put a wine's "true geography" on the label. The wine itself cannot have a sense of place - it's just a bottle of wine. It can, however, offer its consumers a sense of connection - that is, an increased knowledge of where it is from and how it came to be, how it relates to the world.
Maybe I'm rambling.


Press Button for Cake
I have an idea for a piece of public performance art. Actually, lately it has occurred to me that many of my favorite urban design ideas could also be qualified as public art. Maybe I need to switch fields.
So this is what I'm thinking. At intersection crossings around here, there is often an engraved metal sign that reads, "Press Button For," and then has an icon of a figure walking and an arrow. It's the crosswalk button - the one that everyone knows isn't attached to anything but presses anyway - like the "close door" button in elevators. My idea is to produce a replica of the sign where you can slide in different icons to replace the walking figure picture, changing the meaning of the sign. Then you hire someone to stand nearby ready to satisfy the demands of the button.
My first idea is to insert a picture of a slice of cake. I'm imagining a picture like this. An unsuspecting pedestrian approaches the intersection and presses the button without looking at it (or maybe they do and are curious). Then, out of the shadows comes the waiter bearing a nice plate with a slice of cake, offering it to the pedestrian.
Another option is to slide a picture of some musical notes onto the plaque and have a singer serenade the pedestrian when the button is pressed.
Basically, I want people to pay more attention to the minutiae of their urban lives.


The Language and/of Design
I've always been interested in linguistics, but I always regarded it as a side interest, something unrelated to urban design. A series of articles in the New York Times over the past few weeks has made the connection between the two clearer to me. I'm starting to realize that language and design are both what I'll call functional arts. They're both primarily intended to accomplish a task. Language has to communicate ideas, urban design has to create and spaces that are safe and active. But both are also art forms. In some ways, this dual task is a burden - some architects make buildings that fail as buildings but look beautiful. Zaha Hadid, the recent Pritzker winner, gets a lot of flack for this. And some buildings exist as adequate shelters but spark little or no interest among those who use them or see them. In a different way, this obligation to fulfull two roles challenges them on both fronts and demands a better result. I am a firm believer that challenging constraints elicit the best from great minds.
I let this essay sit as a draft for so long that none of the articles are available online anymore (even to me), so I'll have to do my quoting and referencing from memory as the hardcopies are at home. I'll start with Norimitsu Onishi's article on the reflection of cultural values in the different languages of China and Japan. In the piece, he notes that in China they have one alphabet and that's that. But in Japan, there are four alphabets. There are the characters they use that are originally Chinese. Then there is the Japanese phoenetic alphabet. Then there is the increasingly prevalent use of the Roman alphabet. Finally, and most interestingly, there is a specific alphabet only used to signify things that are foreign. Anything originating outside of Japan is given a name using the characters from this alphabet. That means that before even reading the word, when a reader sees that it is constructed using the letters of this "other" alphabet, he or she immediately knows that it is from outside the tightly guarded Japanese culture. The language brands outsiders so their difference is visible to all. In this way, language achieves it's primary goal of communication, but uses it's choice of letters - literary bricks - to communicate a culturally important subtext.
Also interesting is the fact that in Japan there is a government approved list of Chinese characters from which you can name your children. Currently there is a legislative push (a legislative push!) to add characters to that list so that more names can be given, but it hasn't been approved yet.
So, taking that article and reading it with the understanding that the words are the bricks that comprise the cultural buildings - the artwork that supports and reflects our culture, the article becomes much more interesting. I started wondering what are the idiosyncrasies of American language, and are they paralleled in our architecture and urban design?
The next article, Jack Hitt's article on dying languages in Patagonia, really started to get my mind spinning. He traveled down to the farthest reaches of South America and spent time with these small groups of fishermen and their families. Again, not having the article to crib from, I'm doing my best to get the fact's straight. He writes of a few ethnic groups down there who have 5 or less speakers of the native language. The rest, the younger generations, have resorted to speaking Spanish. Kawesqar, one of the language he focuses on, is only spoken by two old women who - and this is brilliant - have some bad blood between them and don't talk to each other. You have to love that. In the face of cultural extinction, human nature perseveres defiantly. Hitt writes about spending time down there in the perpetually rainy islands wasting the days away smoking cigarettes and waiting for these people to speak in their native language, which they prefer not to do in front of foreigners.
Hitt also discusses the instance of a young student who is determined to bring back a dead language, much like Ben-Yehuda did with Hebrew - taking an ancient religious language and adapting it to modern use for the state of Israel. This led me to wonder what happens when a dead or near-dead language is resurrected. Does it really live on or is it a new language entirely? Modern Hebrew is strikingly different from biblical Hebrew. I studied Modern Hebrew for two years at college and still had trouble reading ancient texts in shul. This linguistic resurrection is reflected in the neo-traditionalist architecture common to New Urbanist projects. Are they really using old architecture? Why? Is it rooted in a yearning for the past, in seeing an old reflection of yourself that you aspire to return to? Is there an aspect of past traditions that now seems more relevant to who we are now? Hitt quotes someone - the name eludes me - a linguist, who says that each language describes a particular place in time, a particular perspective on life and existence. And when a language goes extinct, so does that particular way of understanding the world. This expert even uses the phrase, "sense of place," a major catchphrase in contemporary urban design, to describe the feeling of grounded existence that each language creates. It's too perfect to be a coincidence, the use of that phrase.
As an aside, Hitt also points out that in this land of constant drizzle and rain, keeping fires going has always been a priority. On fishing trips, the mother and father would paddle the canoe while the children sat in the middle and kept a small fire going. As soon as they beached, the priority was to build the fire up enough to cook and keep warm. Early European visitors to the area were amazed that in such a wet climate everyone could keep their fires going. Hence the name Tierra del Fuego.
The final article that kicked me into tying it together was James Traub's piece on the mutating face of Times Square. Traub gives a good history of the site and remarks on how now, today, it seems so corporate campy. Looking back on it's history, it seems that previous incarnations of it more honestly reflected the zeitgeist of each era, from it's pedestrian roots to it's campy arcades and freakshows to the theaters. But now, he complains, the corporations run the Square and it no longer reflects our intimate cultural desires. Or does it? He does a bit of a u-turn at the end, pointing out that for all it's disappointing corporate presence, Times Square really is a good time and does call out important values in American culture.
So. This is an unfinished thought, I suppose. I prefer to reach a conclusion in my essays, and maybe there will be a later chapter that does wrap this all together, this issue of language and design being similar reflections on culture, on watching them mutate, come and go, and be resurrected for later use. Or maybe it's a series of open questions. I'm still chewing on it.
I've been neglecting my brain this past month and haven't posted. It's partially attributable to a glorious week spent in Mexico, but in reality I just flaked. I'll be better. I promise.

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