Monday, April 30, 2012

There's something about Public Space


South Miami Farmers' Market in front of City Hall

Perhaps it’s a sense that one has a right to be there.  Perhaps it’s the knowledge that everyone has equal footing and that the social contract is forged by the community, not dictated by a landlord.  So everyone can stand up and breathe in their inalienable rights.  That’s a bit dangerous when you think about it.  What’s it like to have everyone feel they are entitled to do what they want - within the law, of course.  We expect people to act responsibly among their peers according to a shared set of social standards that we all learn as we grow up.  Police intervene only in extreme situations.
Shopping malls are private space.  They imitate publicness, but the rules are tighter so the space feels cloistered and safe.  Parents allow their teenagers to hang at the mall, because they trust security guards to keep the kids out of trouble - mall security in loco parentis.   In this sense, the mall offers an immature version of urban life, like a city with training wheels for those who are not quite grown up yet.  A mall is to the city, as Facebook is to the open web. 
Likewise the architecture of malls is immature.  Focused on shopping, malls are carefully designed to guide people, so every view they take in encounters something to see, which they might buy.  This narrow goal produces manipulative design that serves the city only as far as it must to gain acceptance.  Like the teenagers they attract, malls turn inward, away from the city, usually without depth, complexity or maturity.
So when do we get to grow up?  Where can we be full, responsible members of a complete community, free to cruise the street and cruise the web?   Where do we find mature architecture that treats us with grace, subtlety, and respect?  
Perhaps only by embracing the complexity of city streets and parks and plazas can buildings and people with many purposes interact with each other on the multiple levels of life.  That’s where design can act fully, humanely, and poetically.  The rest is just advertising.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mr and Mrs. Macaw

Today a pair of blue and gold macaws banked in the sunlight just over our heads while my daughter and I waited for her schoolbus.  The yellow under their wings flashed gold in the morning light as they screamed, “Braaaak.”  A married couple, we sometimes see them cruising the city for fruits, which they found this morning in the top of a tree at the corner.  

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver and her husband biologist Steven Hopp traveled to coastal Peru then hiked through the rain forest for a couple of days to find macaws in their native habitat.   She describes the thrill of seeing 'pet shop' birds flying free on their own, simply living their lives.  They were easy to hear and hard to see in the dense canopy, until they flew together, like a motorcycle gang, out in clear air. 

People say the Miami macaws escaped from Parrot Jungle during Hurricane Andrew.  Perhaps.  But we’ve seen families with young birds flying in threes and fours, so they are established residents by now, making a living and raising young.  That makes them feral rather than stranded.  Seeing the couples flying together overhead braaaaking at each other is one of Miami's little bits of magic.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What if architecture were more like gardening?

VerdMX living wall in Mexico City restaurant

What if the goal of design were to support life? And what if the aesthetic pleasure of architecture was in watching life thrive: both human social life and the life of plants and animals?  William McDonough asks whether buildings could be more like trees in that they would contribute positively to the ecosystem.  Annie Dillard writes of the abundance and complexity of plants, which cast flowers and fruits wantonly about, each one an exquisite composition made to attract other species to look, to eat and to drink and, in exchange, to distribute pollen and seeds, which grow into more life.

Well, that’s a lot to ask of a building, but let’s think like a gardener (or landscape architect).  First, a gardener knows the regional conditions – climate and soil.  One who thinks ecologically also knows the biome and the local ecosystems – the plants and animals that depend on each other.  A gardener then studies the qualities of the immediate site (soils, slope, vegetation, buildings) and the microclimates they create, recognizing that any modification would change those conditions.  So the design game is to plant and cut strategically, so life can thrive.

So far, the analogy with architectural design is fairly direct.  Architects simply focus more on human social life, while gardeners think about a broader swath of life that includes plants and non-human animals.  Although for some designers, even this shift toward considering buildings as more than aesthetic objects or experiences is a leap.

Chasing this analogy further:  Gardens have always been places to breathe and to contemplate what and where we are, sometimes joyfully walking in a natural world presented as fruitful and generous, sometimes solemnly, pausing in remembrance of death; sometimes both at once.  Gardens release us from the stasis of architecture, so we can think, just as architecture shelters us from bad weather, so we can think.

A gardener builds with living plants: a structure of trees that will grow large to define the space and the light, then a succession of smaller trees, shrubs, and low-growing species.   Each is placed in relation to the others to create a living system that feeds birds and butterflies while making a lovely place for people.  Some gardens feed people also, with diverse plants that complement each other in a "food forest."  See: http://www.permaculture.org/nm/index.php

Louis Kahn described the process of architectural design similarly: a permanent pattern of structure to create the quality of light in a space, with an infill of elements that may be changed over time.  He almost always included gardens and courtyards as contemplative architectural spaces, for example the bosque of trees and reflecting pool at the entrance to the Kimball Art Museum.

What if architects added ecological thinking to the poetry, or found poetry through ecological order?  As a gardener, they would embrace existing conditions – including existing buildings, then add and subtract strategically.  Starting at the top they might consider how to capture sunlight as energy, as warmth, and as illumination, so it could support as much life as possible.  Sunlight would not go to waste.  Structure, whether large trees or columns and beams, would shade and direct or reflect the light to create sheltered spaces inside and out.  Gardens often create the conditions of the forest’s edge so open spaces mingle with shade and enclosure.   At the edge, two ecosystems overlap to create a third in the liminal space between, so the character of each space emerges as a niche or habitat that navigates both. 

Water is also precious to a gardener for poetic as well as horticultural reasons.  None is wasted.  Well designed gardens do not need irrigation for they capture rainfall and hold it in the soil so plants can drink.  A building likewise can put water to work twice or three times before letting it go into a sewer that is supposed to separate soil from water and return both to the land.

Soil is the third element of the garden that contains and supports life. Architects don’t think about it at all.   They don’t know how much soil is lost to erosion every year or how long it takes to build living soil.  If they did then paving contracts would cease.  A gardener’s building might lift up the soil to put rooms beneath with walls and windows along the shear lines. Soil can support plants at any level, although exposure to the sunlight and wind creates microclimates that would differ around a building and up into its heights.  The lower levels would be shady and cool, as would the north side, though dryer.  The east and west offer reciprocal environments for morning and afternoon, while the south side would be sunlit in winter, shaded in summer, and the topmost part windblown and rough.  The building could support many microsystems, like a tree with birds flitting in the canopy, or a cliff with rock doves, swallows, and falcons, or an island that offers safe harbor for birds at night.

A three-dimensional garden, the hanging gardens of Babylon, and the contemporary vision of green walls and green roofs, like those currently being built/planted in Mexico City, could change the mental picture of what buildings should be doing.  Perhaps they could support more species than just one.

Monday, April 2, 2012

I lost the car in the parking lot

We drove to a performance at the Arsht Center the other night and arrived late because we were stuck in a traffic jam of people coming to this show or to another event at the Arena nearby.  Everyone was jockied into parking lots in a remarkable drill-team effort.  Apparently, this happens every evening on the weekends.  When we came out after the show, I couldn’t find the car.  Although I remembered the view of the building from the place we had hurriedly parked, I took off walking in the wrong direction and finally realized I had led my family to the wrong parking lot.  So, where the heck is the car? 

The Arsht Center was built to give Miami a ‘world-class’ performing arts venue and to anchor revival of a run-down district on the wrong side of the highway.  I remember the peep-show, XXX video shop across the street from the spanking new opera house.  Now - nothing but parking lots.  Where are the restaurants and nightclubs?  Perhaps they are coming.

Many have criticized the developers for not building a large enough parking garage, just as they are criticizing the new ballpark for the same thing.   So there’s the solution? – bigger garages – probably as big as the buildings they serve – a shadow building designed for the traffic jam before and after a performance.  However, some planners say that market forces will take care of the problem.  A calculation of land values and the fee one can charge for parking will induce an entrepreneur to invest.  That’s what happened here.  The land values and parking revenue for weekend events are not high enough to warrant more than a surface lot.  So that’s what we have.  The peep show couldn’t compete.

Back to my story:  I felt lost and stupid, standing there trying to make sense of streets and pavement and chain link fences.  Oh dear.  I looked back toward the Arsht Center.  It looked as it had when we arrived.  Oh my.  Now I’m really lost.

The Arsht Center designer, C├ęsar Pelli wanted consistency on the outside to create a coherent object.  Many buildings look the same on all sides, like Palladio’s Villa Rotonda and the Beineke Library and Louis Kahn’s library at Exeter.  At least the Villa Rotonda has entrances on all sides.  The others do not. So how are you supposed to find the door?  When approaching, you have to look around you for orientation to remember which side is which.  Then hold on to that geographic information in spite of the architecture.

But all I could see was parking lots.  So I confessed my sorry situation to one of the attendants, who asked how much I had paid.  Then, he pointed me in the right direction.  How curious.  The attendants all know each other's prices.  They know which lots fill up first and which are favored by regular customers.  So it’s a little business ecology based on parking real estate.  I tried to imagine how a restaurant might fit into this niche, like an alien species in a mono-culture.  At first, it would have to receive a huge pulse of people before and after the show, with no one in between, like a lunchtime rush.  If other restaurants and late-night martini bars and such joined, then maybe the rush would be spread out and some people would arrive a few hours before the show or leave a few hours later, easing the traffic jam.  With people on the streets, perhaps some might want to live nearby, or take the metro because the walk was less creepy.  Perhaps that’s how an urban fabric might rise up out of the asphalt.   The businesses might raise land values until it might be profitable to build a parking garage that would charge a hefty fee, thus encouraging people to arrive by metro, and so forth.  That’s how market forces should work.

Eventually I found the car, and took my place in another 20-minute traffic jam, trying to pick up my family and get out of there.  At that point, any thought stopping for a nice dessert downtown had long been banished.  Let’s just go home.  The city hasn’t happened yet.