Friday, January 20, 2012

To New Horizons

Oh the sick and twisted future... a film from General Motors in 1940 entitled 'To New Horizons' talking about the world twenty years later.  Yes indeed, "Man continually strives to replace the old, with the new!" 

Spotted on one of my favorite new sites - Copenhagenize.  Check it out.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Shrinking Cities: The Forgetting Machine

One of our supplementary readings for the Shrinking Cities group is the recent essay by Jerry Herron on The Design Observer entitled 'The Forgetting Machine: Notes Toward a History of Detroit.'  The author is from Wayne State and has been a resident of Detroit since the early eighties, so it avoids some of the outsider rhetoric, but he still differentiates himself as coming from out, not within.  Read his essay, as this is more of a 'notes on notes' take that is my reaction and parsing of his essay.  Worth a look.
 :: image via Design Observer

The idea of Detroit as a industrial powerhouse declining into a bastion of cliched ruin-porn makes it a much talked about as a cultural touchstone of the shrunken city phenomenon of the US.  Referred to by artist Camilo Jose Vergara and 'American Acropolis', the idea of preserving the 'ruins' as a tourist attraction, much like the Greeks, leads Herron discusses a similar relationship to the Roman ruins,  After commenting on the disinterest  by locals and the seeming paradox of outsiders being more fascinated by the city than those who occupy it, he turns this around as asks a powerful question:  

"who understands better what the place really means: the person who tries to remember it, or the one who lets it go?"

This becomes a fundamental dilemma surrounding a place that will never return to it's original state - but is not dead by any means.  I think of the lively energy of the contemporary city that I visited in the Fall, surrounding the 1000+ year old ruins of Rome and see a parallel in the larger lesson - that things always change, but the way we engage in that change, and in the sense of Detroit, the deterioration, tells much about us as a society.  As mentioned, the concept of what happens in Detroit isn't special per se, but for the fact that it is happening within a crumbling environment.  Thus as art, mentions Herron:  "things once tragic become beautiful — images for artistic appreciation — with the ravages of daily life being redeemed by photographic dignity."

I share the same fascination with the City of Detroit in images and through my visit and rumination since 2007 - and it puts me in the camp of the gawkers and outsiders, at least to the point where I peruse and am fascinated, but don't buy, the coffee table 'ruin porn' books like Detroit Dissassembled, and the newer The Ruins of Detroit (with an introduction by Thomas Segrue).  What is quoted by Herron from John Berger as 'mystification', where we distance ourselves from the actual phenomena at work - good and bad - and giving them a remoteness by making things art.

:: image via The Ruins of Detroit

The statements made by the photographs, particular referencing those in The Ruins, do not capture the essential rise and fall of Detroit, but seem to bask in the 'dead zone' shivering aesthetic of destruction, which leads Herron to posit:  "Perhaps the cliché-propagating idiom of ruin porn is so powerful that it simply takes over, duping otherwise intelligent artists into a tedious banality that not even the volume's pretentious scale and price can conceal."

So i know I shouldn't like the ruin-porn, but standing in the midst of it, in Detroit, is to experience first-hand the reality.  Perhaps it is somewhat less sanitized and 'framed' as in the photography, but the fact of it's very reality and other-worldly sense that this couldn't be happening, is part of what I think the art is trying to capture.  For me, it was summed up in the spectacle of the Michigan Central Station, which was one of the first massive ruins we encountered, and I still have a vivid memory of the experience (and no photos - i was literally absorbing and didn't think about taking a photo, which is rare).

:: image via Time

It's reductive, and it limits the stories behind the former beauty, and the nasty racial discrimination that was at work in the creation of something like the large Hudson's store on Woodward Avenue, captured in this image that shows the cutaway of the various departments inside the hive of mid-century activity which was vital to the "making of shoppers, like the making of citizens, was an essential function of both store and city, especially the city of middle-class arrivals made possible by the flourishing of modern industry".  This idealistic experience is another cultural ruin that no longer exists (as it was demolished by changes in commerce) - much like the building in which it used to happen.

:: image via Design Observer

The same fates, to a differing degree, befell many sites, like Hudsons, but the overlay of the old (ruin) and the new become something similar to Rome - a cafe right outside the Pantheon, or a gelato stand at the Colosseum... In Detroit, the Michigan Theater, for instance, was an architectural gem from the 1920s, which in the words of Herron was somewhat rudely transformed into a parking garage... "The old Michigan Theater is one of the most suggestive sights in the whole city of Detroit: neither an abandoned ruin nor a precious, restored fetish, but a working statement about making do with the past. The tenants of the offices adjacent to the theater threatened to move out unless they were provided with secure parking, so that’s what the landlord improvised out of the otherwise useless auditorium. And that is the genius of the place."

:: image via Design Observer

 As mentioned, the mechanism is based on the 'mystification', but is really what Herron calls 'site-specific forgetting' in which those people who occupy the city are intertwined within the processes of destruction - and it is not a binary question of one or the other side of a coin. 
"The ruin of urban space becomes a participatory drama: memory versus forgetting, the city dead or the city alive. The trick is seeing both at once, and comprehending them as equally true and mutually implicated."

Shrinking Cities - Readings

A class this term at Portland State involves a reading and conference on 'Shrinking Cities'. Led by professor Ellen Bassett, a group of a dozen students from PhD and Masters in Urban Studies and Urban and Regional Planning reading and discussing four diverse texts, along with a range of other writings on the subject. 

  :: Detroit Race Riots - 1967 -  image via Brittanica

Our first book is "The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit" by Thomas Segrue.  Originally published in 1996, this book has won a number of awards for history, and continues to provide an overview of the connections between racial and economic inequality as played out in the post-WWII urban landscape of Detroit.

Other books include Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City by Colin Gordon, Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City by Howard Gillette, Jr. and Small, Gritty and Green: The Promise of America's Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World by Catherine Tumber.

This is By no means a comprehensive overview of the subject, but the aim of the group is to discuss the social, economic, political, and spatial phenomena at work in a number of US Shrinking Cities, to better understand this issue.  Stay tuned for some thoughts over coming weeks, and if you have suggested readings to include, that would be very welcome.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Science of Pedestrian Movements

 An interesting article from the Economist on 'The Wisdom of Crowds' echoes much of the seminal research of William Whyte (City), Edward T. Hall (The Hidden Dimension), and others that have closely studied the behavior of pedestrians and other users of public spaces. The interplay of cultural habits that tells us to step right or left to avoid collisions on a busy street can lead to a certain inherent poetic 'choreography' when viewed. There are different theories on how these actions are coordinated, and the article focuses on new scientific methods for predicting and studying pedestrian movements. 

:: image via The Economist
 As Jane Jacobs mentioned in The Death and Life of Great American Cities this urban realm is likened to a ballet:
"It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.”
It was interesting, in this context, to remember my recent travels to Europe, namely London, where traffic on the roads occupies the left lane, but as mentioned in the article, there is not a correlation between this and pedestrian movement. While they mention that London follows pedestrians on the right, that is an oversimplification, as it doesn't necessarily follow, at least in my experience. Many people follow the walking to the left, which is culturally learned in the UK, mirroring the driving, but the influx on many non-locals that have their own rules often leads this to degenerate into chaos. Thus there is not a typical rule of thumb - and you are therefore required to be much more actively engaged in the surroundings to navigate successfully.

London Pavement Parkings - (image by Jason King)
As mentioned in the originally referenced article, culture is less important in this process as is habit and repetition: "Mehdi Moussaid of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, this is a behaviour brought about by probabilities. If two opposing people guess each other’s intentions correctly, each moving to one side and allowing the other past, then they are likely to choose to move the same way the next time they need to avoid a collision. The probability of a successful manoeuvre increases as more and more people adopt a bias in one direction, until the tendency sticks. Whether it’s right or left does not matter; what does is that it is the unspoken will of the majority."

The importance of this sort of study (sorry thought, as mentioned, this not a 'youngish field') has long been known in urban realms. It is being rediscovered by other sciences and disciplines (seems like everyone wants to study the city now!) such as physics, who are using modeling in the context of crowd safety, particularly in a more multi-cultural world, to better understand what has long been studied the old-fashioned way - by watching people in person or through video.

While thinking of people in similar terms of particles may be helpful, as people are governed by many rules - there is somewhat of a wildcard element in human behavoir as people act as "particles with a 'will'", doing sometimes unpredictable things and non-linear behaviors. The issues with modeling are obvious, when you take into account the sheer number of variables at play even in the most simple pedestrian-to-pedestrian interaction. The article mentions this in the context of a study between Indian and German pedestrians, where the direction is also complicated by cultural spatial rules as well:
"Trying to capture every element of pedestrian movement in an equation is horribly complex, however. One problem is allowing for cultural biases, such as whether people step to the left or the right, or their willingness to get close to fellow pedestrians. Trying to capture every element of pedestrian movement in an equation is horribly complex, however. One problem is allowing for cultural biases, such as whether people step to the left or the right, or their willingness to get close to fellow pedestrians. An experiment in 2009 tested the walking speeds of Germans and Indians by getting volunteers in each country to walk in single file around an elliptical, makeshift corridor of ropes and chairs. At low densities the speeds of each nationality are similar; but once the numbers increase, Indians walk faster than Germans. This won’t be news to anyone familiar with Munich and Mumbai, but Indians are just less bothered about bumping into other people."
It would be interesting to do a lit review of cultural spatial studies, building on the work of Hall, to see if these have been updated, and if we have learned anything new in the past 20 years, since The Hidden Dimension was published in 1990. The world has changed dramatically and is much more global, thus it makes sense that even this sort of revolutionary study, while still somewhat applicable, will have changed due to a changed world. This goes as well to updating Whyte's classic video studies of public spaces (i.e. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces), which are great but extremely dated and not reflective of a much more culturally rich society. A screen shot of one of the videos shows a different environment than what exists even 20 to 30 years later. This doesn't mean his data are any less relevant, but that we must continue to engage in further study to learn more.

A research agenda that looks at these phenomena, how we use spaces, how we react and incorporate multiple cultural viewpoints, and more is vital to our continual understanding of proxemics, pedestrian movement, crowd dynamics, and more. This can be done by incorporation of more scientific modeling of typically non-urban disciplines, such as the complex modeling processes in physics. It is, to me, much more interesting to envision this study through updates of the seminal urban research studies, which would be a worthy endeavor in our ever globalizing world and our constantly diversifying cities.

This post originally appeared on THINK.urban on January 05, 2012.

Anne Whiston Spirn Lecture in Portland

An upcoming lecture by Anne Whiston Spirn entitled Restoring an Urban Watershed: Ecology, Equity, and Design will be happening on Monday, January 23rd, from Noon to 1pm at the Portland Building, 1120 SW Fifth Avenue - Second Floor, Room C.  The brownbag is free and open to all.  Here's a synopsis.

The West Philadelphia Landscape Project is a landmark of urban design, watershed management, environmental and design education, and community engagement. Anne Whiston Spirn, who has directed the project for 25 years, will describe the story of the restoration of the Mill Creek watershed as a model for how to unite ecology, design, and community engagement to address social and environmental problems in low-income communities. Anne will also discuss her book, Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange's Photographs and Reports from the Field.
Anne Whiston Spirn is an award-winning author and distinguished landscape architect, photographer, teacher, and scholar whose work is devoted to promoting life-sustaining communities.  

Sponsored by:  
Urban Greenspaces Institute
Audubon Society of Portland
Portland Bureau of Environmental Services
Portland Office of Healthy Working Rivers.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Soundtrack for Spaces - Next Generation

I have discussed the concept  previous posts on the 'Soundtrack for Spaces', where I was making connections between physical locations in the landscape and the potential to imbue place with appropriate musical accompaniment.  These varied, but included looking at the Fleet Foxes as driving music in the Columbia River Gorge, the video customization for Arcade Fire's 'The Wilderness Downtown', and another video stitched together from Google Street View clips.

The ideas at the time were somewhat nascent, and sort of hinted at the concept of adaptable, location-specific music responsive to place.  This was reinforced by reading one of William Gibson's latest novels called 'Spook Country', which discusses the concept of 'locative media' within the storyline, which means media that is delivered "directly to the user of a mobile device dependent upon their location."  Another thread was a tale of games of location-specific 'Urban Pacman' taking place in Portland - using the game-friendly layout of Ladd's Addition as a container. 

:: image via Robot Mutant

An article from a few weeks back in the NY Times - "Central Park, the Soundtrack" takes this idea to an entirely new level.  Bluebrain, a musical duo have created.  The first of the series looked at the National Mall, and the second, of these 'locational' music pieces, 'Listen to the Light' provides an experiential soundtrack for Central Park.  From the Times article:

"As you walk, new musical themes hit you every 20 or 30 steps, as if they were emanating from statues, playgrounds, open spaces and landmarks... The themes layer over one another, growing in volume as you approach certain points on the map and fading out as you move away. It’s a musical Venn diagram placed over the landscape, and at any time you might have two dozen tracks playing in your ears, all meshing and colliding in surprising ways. The path you take determines what you hear, and the biggest problem with what the composers call a “location-aware album” is that you may get blisters on your feet trying to hear it all."
The Venn diagram looks something like this, and the tracks reference GPS coordinates.  A diagram or map of the overlay of different musical phrases, from the Bluebrain site:
You can get a taste for the 'classical' inspired work as well.

Central Park (Listen to the Light) - A New Location Aware Album by BLUEBRAIN from BLUEBRAIN on Vimeo.

Definitely check out the slightly longer 'making of' video for "Listen to the Light" for more detail on the technical aspects.  It is somewhat difficult to assess whether the piece is a success or not, divorced from context, but that might be the point.  For those of us who have a constant soundtrack going through our head - which hits shuffle based on a word on a street sign or a sight of a sunset, it does lead one to think that there many possibilities that we are just scratching the surface.

Another interesting example mentioned in the article was GPS Beatmap: Planet as Control Surface, which uses location-specific positioning to mash-up musical phrases based on where you are. Check out a video of this in action here:

GPS Beatmap from Jesse Stiles on Vimeo.

It's pretty exciting, even in these simple formats - and it isn't difficult to envision new radio stations that are location-driven, where users can select a genre, plug in headphones, and participate in an immersive, place-based experience customized to their own particular 

For more, check out ASLA's The Dirt post on Bluebrain here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Siftings: 01.11.12

"“All great art is born of the metropolis.” - Ezra Pound

 :: image via NY Times

A great little snapshot on urban serendipity from the NY Times that looks at the accidental 'curation' of spaces that the urban environment yields, such as the framed view from the subway to the Brooklyn Bridge.  Perhaps the uniformity of the grid is part of the magic, as the NYT also talks about the 200th Anniversary of the Manhattan Grid, along with the exhibition at the Museum of the City.  And speaking of paving here in Portland, local group Depave got some nice coverage on OPB for their continued work on rolling back pavement in the city.  As for making money on the urban agriculture and gardens - a study in Vancouver, BC finds that it is still a challenge to make a living wage farming, even in the city.  Perhaps we can lobby for urban farm subsidies?

:: image via Museum of the City

Nate Berg at the Atlantic Cities sums up Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne's year-long project to explore his city through its literature, and some of his conclusions on where we stand.  As quoted in the Atlantic article:
"“What the books have suggested to me,” Hawthorne argues, “is that we really don’t have – and need – a new framework for understanding the city at this moment in its history as it undergoes this transition.”
A review of his most recent reading of 'Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space' can be found here - which is an interested exploration of the role of space, and the role of social status, on the way we interpret urban histories.  Related, and probably not big news, but people are less enamored with the suburbs, and are re-urbanizing, in this case, Philadelphia along with living in more dense types of housing. 

:: image via

More on Occupy, with the recent flurry of Global and US occupations bringing into question the 'limits' of how public spaces are.  As mentioned in the story:
"The Occupy Wall Street movement showed there are often limits to how long one can stay in the town square of a “free” state to express one’s opinion. Various kinds of force were used to get people out of New York’s Zuccotti Park."
An interesting article from The Dirt on the $50 million!!!!! dollars of planning documents and designs for the Orange County Great Park, which has failed to yield much in terms of output.  It brings into question the time-scale on these massive endeavors, and how much needs to happen to create a 'park' in a traditional sense to satisfy some - while allowing space (and budgets) to evolve over decades.

:: image via The Dirt

Finally, a new competition from the Land Art Generator Initiative asks how renewable energy can be beautiful with a planned site at the Freshkills Park - which has a similar time-scale to the Great Park above.  And Freshkills may be an apt model for Mexico City, who is planning to close their massive landfill... And for the squeamish, a new report from the National Research Council changes the tune of reclaimed wastewater (aka toilet to tap) from a 'option of last resort' to a viable strategy that poses no more health risks than other sources.  Drink up!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Siftings 01.06.12

Another round of Siftings from the past couple of days.  Starting off with a couple of Occupy-related posts, including a great article from Saskia Sassen and Hans Haacke from Artforum entitled 'Imminent Domain'.  The first sentence - "OCCUPYING IS NOT THE SAME as demonstrating..." points out a recent and annoying trend of calling any sort of protest an occupation.  It diminishes the act of occupying to do so.  Worth reading, but a snippet I will include:

"To occupy is to remake, even if temporarily, territory’s embedded and often deeply undemocratic logics of power, and to redefine the role of citizens, mostly weakened and fatigued after decades of growing inequality and injustice. Indeed, the occupations have revealed to what extent the reality of territory goes beyond its dominant meaning throughout the twentieth century, when the term was flattened to denote national sovereign territory."

The National discusses a competition for Egypt's Tahrir Square, particularly to provide a monument that is a "memorial competition to commemorate the actions of the revolution."  Particularly, the article mentions, is to remember the estimated 846 people who died in the protests (yes, that was a real occupation).  It points out also, that while in the US, we can claim public space, and also claim a measure of shared atrocity with the liberal use of baton and pepper spray to disperse crowds, we're still along way from bullets and grenades as a typical strategy, as is found in many parts of the world. 

On a different note, Richard Florida, if anyone is still listening to him, has an article in the Atlantic on 'How the Crash Will Reshape America' which is worth a read, along with an interesting exploration on 'The Case for Congestion' - which argues for some slow-ness, but perhaps not to the degree of the scenarios that imagined a "City Without Its Public Transportation" and what that would mean for automobile gridlock. 

An article from the NY Times 'Taking Parking Lots Seriously, as Public Spaces' includes some study from Eran Ben-Joseph, including some startling stats, such as that there are: "...500 million parking spaces in the country, occupying some 3,590 square miles, or an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined." 

The article and slideshow (thanks NY Times for not allowing pic downloads!!!) - also yielded a gem from Lewis Mumford, which has definitely made the rounds on Twitter and Facebook:

"“As the critic Lewis Mumford wrote half a century ago, ‘The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is the right to destroy the city.’"
 And finally, from 'Growing Your Greens', an interesting Incredible Edible Public Garden in Irvine, California (with apologies for the host yelling all the time)... The title is a bit misleading, as it would be quite a feat to feed 200k of people with 7.5 acres.  Enjoy.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Community Growth: Crisis and Challenge

Via Atlantic Cities, an interesting film from 1959 exploring the implications for sprawl... from the National Association of Home Builders and the Urban Land Institute.  I particularly like the diagrams of the monocentric city towards polycentric city form in post WWII United States. 

The solutions include planned unit developments, cluster developments, townhouses, culs-de-sac, separation of auto and pedestrian uses, loop streets, and circular streets are mentioned - all of which had/have merit - but are not a silver bullet to fix issues.  Interestingly, have we actually come very far in the last 50+ years?  Can planning solve these issues?  As summed up in patriotic fervor:

"Planning alone is not the final answer to the crisis of our land.  But without wise and far-sighted planning, there can be no answers.  How wisely, or wastefully, we use the heritage of our land, is not solely the responsibility of the planner, the developer, the builder, the community official.  It is the responsibility of all of us, who are the American community."

The solution - more research.  Some things never change.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Siftings 01.04.12

A veritable log-jam of links worth checking out, so I thought I'd drop a few of them on folks - worth checking out for sure.  To start, John King of the Chronicle takes us on a tour of 'parklets' in San Francisco, or what is essentially Rebar's Parking Day in a more permanent iteration... I'd show you a pic but the SF Gate has them under lock and key so you should check out the slideshow, good stuff!  

Beautiful 3D maps by artist Matthew Picton, made from a range of media - such as "Lower Manhattan created from headlines that accompanied the 2001 world Trade center bombing and DVD covers of the film “Towering Inferno” also book covers of the novel “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth"

Listen to an NPR story about Leonardo Da Vinci and the inherent wisdom of trees - a branching pattern where, "...when trees branch, smaller branches have a precise, mathematical relationship to the branch from which they sprang."

Map-nerds, see what my favorite christmas present, Derek Hayes' 'Historical Atlas of Oregon and Washington', or check out the 'Best American Wall Map' and find out what makes a good map better than a bad one...

In tandem with the lecture by Timothy Beatley here in Portland, check out the Biophilic Cities website...see a video about Rain Gardens, and find out how to be a hardcore locavore and make Squirrel Risotto.

You can also find out 'Things Architects Love', a somewhat tongue-in-cheek take which includes some standards like 'slatted timber' and 'drawings with birds in the sky', which seem to have become a staple of contemporary design language. 

And speaking of contemporary design, I'm not sure if I'd totally agree these were the most notable events, but Birnbaum lists 2011's 10 Notable Developments in Landscape Architecture, which includes the hopefully tongue and cheek comment that "...if we do not write about landscape, it will not endure," which i take means his obligation to the Huffington Post :)

More to come.