Tuesday, June 28, 2011

revisiting place

The notion of place and creating place is frequently discussed in design school and professional practice. Over the past 10 months I have had the opportunity to understand what it means to be "rooted" in place and what it means to actually live in "place." It is easy to get lost in the idea that when we design places people will only use them for a certain period of time and remember them as something special. We, myself included, may tend to get caught up in the idea that we are designing solely for the visitor and not for the permanent resident. (We are designing for ourselves, imagining how we would use the place and what we think is appropriate)

After a semester long seminar of reading about and stretching the discourse on place theory, I have rather confidently confirmed that what I thought I knew was far from what I actually know now.

When I think back to my understanding of place literature, I realize that I kept on relating place and the creation of place to either my comfort zone or my ideal travel destination or past experiences. These concepts address the local and the short-term but don't comprehensively address place as something long-term, adaptable and resilient to the forces of change. After living in Aspen, a place I initially thought was my comfort zone and my ideal travel destination for the past 10 months I have come to realize that if we want to create place as designers, we need to be able to leave our preconceived notions behind and listen to the existing uniqueness of a certain place.

I'm getting at the concept of how well designers can work outside of their scale, their region and their country - and the limitations we should consciously acknowledge. For instance, a lot of us from the NY/NJ area have a far different notion of what makes a place special than someone from an impoverished neighborhood in, say, Kansas. Further, if we expand this concept to designing an urban plaza in a Santiago, Chile neighborhood, then we will be pushed even further away from our understanding of culture and societal wants and needs.

So what's the big idea? If I came to Aspen as a designer working on a park, an open space network or a residence with the understanding I had prior to living here for 10 months, my design would have addressed the items I thought were important. It would not have addressed the seasonality, the ecology, the rhythm and frequency of tourism and, most importantly, would not have understood the needs of the long term, permanent residents. Sure, you are thinking, this is why we conduct site analysis (but, in reality, how well do we do that on average?) have public meetings and work with local consultants. And, sure, you are correct. But, how much of our final product is influenced by our initial vision, our feelings and our internal conception of beauty?

If we think about place theory and think about more than just what we like about where we grew up and where we have traveled and instead think about what place means for the people living in the area we are designing, then we have a better chance of designing something special. We may actually design place, and the people who use it every day may actually want to continue to use it and integrate it into their daily lives.

Ultimately, design has to include research and, dare I say, even science. But, don't get me wrong, if we forget art and beauty then we might as well not even put pen to paper in the first place. Design has to respond to context, and I believe that is the elementary framework for place making.

Monday, June 20, 2011

the standardization of cool

It's hard to doubt that vacant industrial architecture, stitched into the neglected post-industrial landscape, is at the top of the list of cool (especially in the context of the last decade).

The ease at which one can transform a vacant warehouse into an art studio or a music hall is extraordinary. These once average, or below average, landscapes (e.g. The High Line, The Allegheny River Front, Hudson River Piers) and utilitarian architecture (a vast majority of the East River waterfront) now provide spaces for a variety of uses, most of which tend to draw inspiration from the aged composition of industrial architecture and landscape. We don't have to look too far to see that this trend exists internationally - take the Ruhr Valley in Germany or Victoria Street in Melbourne, for example.

The question of how the post-industrial urban form can transform has certainly been answered, in numerous cities and by numerous cultures. Can we begin to infer, then, that the notion of what is cool in this regard has become standardized? Has the trend in post-industrial urban revitalization now simply become a predictable morphology?

It isn't too much of a stretch to guess where I'm taking this story:

Industry fades, industry vacates, the structures and landscape that remain are easily adaptable, artisans and counter culture moves in, the mood and culture of the neighborhood shifts, more people are attracted to it, the middle and upper class enjoy the art, enjoy the food and music, economically it makes sense to begin to cater to wealth, loft living inserts itself into the warehouses, small galleries are eventually pushed out, the chic culture grows, the neighborhood sees new structures built, playing off the industrial vibe.

Years later, just as industry fell and inspired a new aesthetic, the once new aesthetic is gentrified and the standardization of cool transforms into the standardization of loft living, high end galleries and a class of people far different from those who inspired the initial transformation. This is, of course, a strong generalization, but one that is valid in many ways and many contexts.

The next task for me is to prove myself wrong and adjust my theory to specifically 2011 and the future. To understand how this theory of the standardization of post-industrial urban morphology will prove incorrect in years to come.

While I do believe this pseudo-standardization theory to be true in many ways, in an America where the economy is still on crutches, how does post-industrial urban morphology change? What does gentrification begin to look like in an age of economic down turn? Do people want to live in chic industrial lofts or is there a new pattern of living desires. How does this relate to the booming economy of China or to the long standing transformed Ruhr Valley, where many of the families from the industrial culture remain and some industry still functions?