I found an interesting, if somewhat geeky article on nature.com today. It describes a Swedish information-science project that studied the navigability of different cities. The researchers mapped every street in a given city as a node and each intersection as a link between the nodes. This created an image that resembles those airline maps in the back of inflight magazines. By measuring how many nodes a traveler must pass through in order to take an average journey, the researchers can demonstrates how well networked that city is. They then created randomized versions of the city: networks that had the same number of nodes but whose nodes were connected at random. Surprisingly, the real cities were harder to navigate than the random ones.
I take perverse pride in that - that humans attempt to manage growth has outwitted itself so thoroughly as to be less helpful than chaos.
The article also includes this interesting quote:
The crucial characteristic that complicates cities seems to be their inhomogeneity. A random network is more or less equally random everywhere. But cities, especially ones with a long history, have local "islands" of dense interconnections, containing streets that are hidden away in corners.The word they're looking for is "neighborhoods," by the way. The researches neglect to notice that there's a perfectly good reason for these "local 'islands' of dense interconnections," (ie, neighborhoods): the human mind can only remember so much, navigationally-speaking. And wouldn't you know it, that amount is roughly correlated to the size of neighborhoods. Even if a city were to be perfectly designed by a computer to be as navigable and efficient as possible, no person would be able to memorize it due to its size. Instead, people memorize - familiarize really - themselves with the streets in their immediate neighborhood and rely on landmarks and major thoroughfares to navigate the rest of the relatively foreign city. That's just the way our brains work, at least Western brains. We have to break things down into digestible bits in order to get a handle on them. You see it in everything from Linnaean taxonomy to tribalism. Urban design is the same. We eat the city one bite at a time.
My brother-in-law told me the other day that when he used to live in New York City, he would occasionally remark, "this place smells like my ass." And now, living in a beautiful house up in Marin with my sister and two adorable little daughters, a view of Mount Tam, and a slower pace of life, he finds himself looking back fondly on the rush of New York and wistfully saying, "I miss the smell of my ass."
I'm moving to New York.
I have been considering this move for a long time. It started with me telling people that I was considering moving to New York just so I could see what it felt like to say it. And over time I have come to realize that I mean it. I love San Francisco and thank my lucky stars that my family is here so I can come back and visit a few times a year, but it is not for me, at least not right now. It is too pretty, too sleepy, woefully lacking in seasonal change, and strangely lacking an outspoken Jewish community, which is important to me. (How bizarre is it that it is completely acceptable to parade down the street in chaps and no pants, but somehow nobody feels comfortable being outwardly Jewish? This is an essay for another time) San Francisco is truly the nicest place I have ever lived, but I have realized that niceness has the power to lull me to sleep, and right now I want nothing more than to be awake.
So New York it is. Rumor has it there's plenty of urban life to reflect on there, so Skunklove will dutifully smell the ass and report back with new insights. I'll be in SF for another month or so, followed by a brief trip overseas, and hopefully I'll be posting the whole time.
In the comment box for the post "Middle East Peace? Urban Design? Feh. Same thing," my friend Skydiver makes an interesting comment. He wants to look at the travel patterns of different lifestyles, a housewife, a CEO, an urban yuppie, and place them on a single map.
I started to picture what they might look like, and I don't think you can fit the daily travels of a housewife on the same map with those of a CEO - the scale's are too different. The housewife travels from the home to the supermarket to the school to the soccerfields, all within a 20 miles radius. The CEO, however, travels internationally. If you put them on the same map, the travels of the housewife disappear into a small smudge. It would be interesting to rescale the CEO's travel pattern map to match, roughly, with that of the housewife. The factor by which you change it would say a lot about difference in worlds the two people occupy: the housewife in her traditional, family-oriented world, and the CEO in the globalizing business world.
And then, the moral has to be that they're married. Living in different worlds, but married.
One of my side projects that I've been neglecting recently reared it's head this morning in an unexpected place. I was reading the Sunday Times Magazine article on Ariel Sharon and I saw this quote:
When both sides can sustain their finest illusions about each other, as the
Israelis and the Palestinians could for a while under Oslo, reality has
a way of rising to meet them...If you believe you have no peace partner [however]
and act as if you do not, you will have no peace partner.
This idea somehow found its way to the part of my brain that is devoted to a book idea my brother and I are cultivating, which is a book that teaches people how to act like they are traveling when in fact they are in their own hometown. My brother wisely points out that we should title (or sub-title) it, "How to Successfully Lie to Yourself."
The Times quote nails the self-fulfilling prophesy aspect integral to changing a boring life at home into a life filled with little surprises. In both cases (the Middle East and hometown travel) the secret is tricking yourself into behaving like your environment is condusive to one thing when you fear it is not. What's interesting to note is that it doesn't seem to matter what the environment actually is like. At risk of sounding like a self-help book, it becomes clear to me that the idea hints at the power of the individual to create the environment they desire. Ariel Sharon reacts to what he perceives as a threatening environment with lock-down strategies. For all his insistence on keeping the initiative, the root of his belief-system lies in responding to perceived threats. He is a pessimist. The doves in Israel, however unpopular their viewpoint might be among Israelis these days, have realized the power inherent in behaving like peace is possible.
Now, looking at the urban lifestyle question (Monday morning is too early to be picking apart Middle East news, anyway), the question is: when you're looking at a scenario that doesn't necessarily involve a negotiating partner, does the same self-fulfilling prophesy logic still apply? Do you need a partner or can you just flip the switch, start behaving like your environment is what you want it to be, and reap the rewards?
There is some sort of weight to reality, so it can't all be in our heads, but how much of our world is mutable? And how much of our perception of the environment is fueled by the environment in the first place and how much is a product of a carefully managed desensitization strategy intended to save us from nervous breakdowns?
Today's New York Times' science section has an article that, at first glance, has nothing to do with urban design. But it does. The article is about a raging debate among psychotherapists about whether the field should be regulated by scientific principles or be guided more intuitively. Read the article and substitute "urban design" for "psychotherapy," and you end up with quotes like this:
At bottom, the dispute is over the nature of urban design: Is it an
intuitive process, more art than science? Or is it more a matter of an urban designer
following specific procedures that reliably help people get better?
I was in Chicago this last weekend on a quick trip, but I had a little time to get out and explore. From my hotel near Navy Piers, I walked south along Michigan Avenue to the newly minted Millennium Park. Funny, you would think that engineers would know better than to name a park after a particular date. This is not a good strategy for avoiding public scorn for overdue projects.
According to the map, Millennium Park is chock full of attractions, but I only saw two of them. Anish Kapoor's sculpture, Cloud Gate, resembles a 110-ton silver, shiny jellybean. This is a good thing. The world would apparently be a much more irreverent, educational, and beautiful place if it were filled with 110-ton silver, shiny jellybeans. Why? Because Cloud Gate (which, mark my words, will end up being called, "the Jellybean") was swarming with people. Swarming. True, it's August - prime tourist season - and true, the park just opened and is located at the southern end of the main tourist drag, but this piece was the center of all attention. Its warped reflections of pedestrians and the skyline are magnetic. Visitors can walk underneath the piece where a concave ceiling offers dizzying, kaleidoscopic reflections. Everyone looks up. Everyone waves, trying to find themselves relative to everyone else. It's playful, it's beautiful, and it's a little bit crazy. It perfectly straddles the finicky line between intellectual and approachable.
The second piece I looked at was Frank Gehry's new Pritzker Pavillion, an outdoor concert hall. Gehry's work used to be cutting edge. Now it belongs in a Sharper Image Catologue. The fact that every city must have a Gehry is pathetic. Besides offering him little incentive to push himself, it doesn't speak well of American culture's appetite for novel architecture. Walking from Cloud Gate and looking at Pritzker Pavillion, I came to the quick conclusion that Gehry got beat by a big jellybean. Both are shiny, edgy, and modern, but only the Jellybean attracts the masses. Gehry is already last week. To be fair, Pritzker Pavillion has its merits: it is hardly staid. It has that crazy Gehry explosion thing going for it. But it is ongepatshket. It's too much, pasted together as if more were always better. There's the exploding main building, which buckles outward like a piece of tinsel popcorn - that much I like, although my father pointed out that the glass curtain wall in front of the stage looks like someone tacked it on at the last minute. But the main seating lawn is covered over by a criss-crossing grid of metal poles and speakers. It's overbearing and unnecessary, architecturally: the space is already sufficiently enclosed. Worse, a pedestrian overpass on the east side of the site is also constructed out of the traditional Gehry materials. It distracts from the main stage so much that I got halfway across it before I realized it was just an overpass. Why draw attention away from the feature piece?
- Walking in the Chicago Art Institute's sculpture garden, which is beautiful, I saw a homeless man sleeping on a bench inscribed with the words: Make Life Art.
- Both the hotel we stayed in (the Lakefront Embassy Suites) and the Ritz Carlton, where we stopped to buy cigars after a big dinner, had lobbies that weren't on the first floor. Is this a new hotel trend? You walk in and are greeted by a spartan lobby and one person behind a desk who tells you to proceed to the "sky lobby" via elevator. Is this a security thing? So strange.
I was talking to my dad last night about my post on art critique ("Painting the Town Red?"), wherein I repeat my favorite point that urban design is a hybrid between art and engineering. We talked about how urban design aims to satisfy both the practical goals of engineering and the emotional/intellectual (spiritual?) goals of art and how that poses a major hurdle since the two are so different. In the end, we pushed it a little farther: urban design is located exactly where the control-freakiness of engineering runs smack into the intuitiveness of art. And the two are mutually exclusive. While you can be intuitively controlling (ugh, what an awful thought), it's impossible to be a control-freak who regularly lets intuition take over for the simple reason that following your intuition - allowing the lessons you have learned but cannot necessarily quantify or explain - is inherently risky. And control-freaks minimize risk at all costs. That's why they're called "freaks."
So then the question becomes: since urban design is moving more and more towards control-freakiness and further from intuitiveness in an attempt to legitimize itself as a young profession, how can we create a counter-trend?
While I was in NY, I met with a friend of a friend who works at the Times Square Alliance, a non-profit that aims to improve the area. She explained to me that over the last 20 or so years, they have cleaned up Times Square and made it more tourist friendly, but now they are embarking on an attempt to make it more pedestrian friendly. I can attest to its pedestrian-surliness. It took me ten minutes to walk two blocks. A few unlucky tourists are killed by cars there every year, I'm told.
So now they are investigating ways to make space both for tourists who walk slow and residents who are more, shall we say, destination-oriented. They are following the standard path of talking to pedestrian engineers, but it occurred to me that they ought to really talk to store designers. Isn't Times Square, after all, a consumerist bazaar, an homage to corporate America in all its deliciously twisted glory? It would be interesting to see what store/mall designers would do with the space. After all, they are the kings of making people walk where they want them to and see what they want. Treating Times Square as a street seems to me like a mistake.
I had a great conversation in NY yesterday with my friend Lilly Manwise-Dice, who is going to be a famous painter someday, about art critique. She pointed out that when artists sit around and critique each other's work, an interesting thing happens: If they are all looking at a piece and end up discussing why it is that, for example, the square just doesn't look right next to the triangle, then it becomes clear that as a whole the piece doesn't work. You can't tease apart the different aspects of the work into logical statements about what works in what situations. It can be fun, but in the end it proves fruitless. Art is intuitive.
Not only that, but Lilly pointed out that if you find yourself thinking about the different aspects of the piece, then by definition the work hasn't fully succeeded. This is based on her premise (which I agree with) that truly successful art clicks so well with the audience that it doesn't even occur to them to try and analyze it. It just works - end of story. You stand in front of the piece and are so taken with it that all you do is feel. My father the mystic would call this a holy, selfless moment.
As always, the focus turns to urban design. Since urban design is at least one part art, what happens if you look at urban design through this lens? Because it is a hybrid of art and engineering, there must be an attention to detail that is on some levels lacking in other media. Cars must be able to get across town. The city must function. But could this definition of successful art be used to gauge streetscapes, for example? There are streetscape guidelines floating around that quantify streetscapes, breaking them down into their constituent elements and discussing what works, what doesn't, and, in some cases, how far apart trees should be spaced. I've engaged in studies like this in grad school, and they're interesting, but while they do provide a palette with which urban designers can work, they also limit the creativity of urban designers by inherently coaxing them to only tinker with what exists instead of making bold decisions. GIve someone a palette and it suddenly becomes difficult to use new colors.
At the root of this is the issue of urban design's identity crisis. Are we artists? Are we engineers? When should our work be judged as one and when as the other?