Saturday, May 17, 2014

Reconnecting architects

The essential philosophy that is taught to students of architecture is quite a frustrating thing. As someone who builds things, I work with people, I use my hands — like today there is a work party in my community where we are building things. I know how to build because of that. Most architects only understand buildings abstractly. They are taught incomplete theories, they draw pictures, but they usually don’t actually engage in the process of building or maintaining the things that they design. So this void of understanding is a problem, and it also plays out in other expressions of disconnection. You also notice that design students almost never draw pictures of people in their projects. They put them in at the last minute maybe to give a sense of human scale to the presentation drawing. I think that’s fascinating because in all cases we are designing environments that people live in, but architects tend instead to think perfunctorily, merely in terms of basic commercial functions. They don’t really think about people, don’t think of their actual experience. How strange, because the great identity that underpins the whole culture of design and architecture is that it is the Mother Of All Arts, made to uplift the human being.

Industrial modernism on the other hand is focused on objects — architects now want to create beautiful things to look at, and it is a huge unfortunate oversimplification but it applies. The models that they’ve been given include Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier or in some ways even Frank Lloyd Wright, and all were considered great artists who would tend to design things but not places. In contrast, that’s why this term placemaking has arisen. It’s because architects have nearly utterly failed to provide a sense of place. We’ve learned at best that the architect is a facilitator of cultural engagement and at worst just merely a designer of objects.

Reconnecting Architects with the Community  (Permaculture Research Institute)

Shared urban yards

But the easiest way to create such a community is to design it as a shared space from the start. That’s what Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides, a husband-and-wife architecture firm, do in the Los Angeles region. They have built nearly a dozen communities of courtyard housing, and Polyzoides has also written a book on the subject, “Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles.”

“We know from a social point of view that the happiest human beings live in circumstances that allow them to interact in many kinds of space,” Polyzoides said. The courtyard, he said, was “a realm where people find some sense of coming together” – a microcosm of the neighborhood and the city itself. In one of their developments in Pasadena, he noted, residents began gathering spontaneously for a glass of wine on Friday evenings – and those with no dinner plans often wound up eating together afterward.

Such collective spaces were once thought impossible to maintain (the tragedy of the commons), ill-suited to personal responsibility, and generally undesirable. But times have changed. Americans are more willing to share than ever, and technology and governance have adapted to make distributing collective responsibility easier – whether through special tax-increment zones or sharing-focused websites.

How do we create new green space in a dense and growing city? “You’ve got parking lots, but that’s basically land held for buildings,” Drayton said. “You can close streets, but there are costs of doing that.”

And then you have backyards, alleys and the rest of the city block’s forgotten innards – a great space waiting to happen.

The golden opportunity our cities are missing (Salon) Living in the city means you don't often see a whole lot of green — but it doesn't have to be that way