Introduction to Re-Visions... (3 of 3)

I designed this experience in response to the particular circumstances of this site in Providence. However, the larger idea of an immersive experience with images and sounds, and possibly other sensory stimuli, are a design move past collections of photos, renderings mounted on boards, and meetings with expert speakers. The idea that everyone involved can experience a quiet moment to reflect on and imagine the rich possibilities inherent in a space and then come together to discuss the realities of that situation is what I am promoting.

IMG_8690b.png

It is in this spirit that I find a sort of fractal-like analogy between public space, and the public debate over how public spaces should be created in our cities. As Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for the The New York Times says, “Squares have defined urban living since the dawn of democracy, from which they are inseparable. The public square has always been synonymous with a society that acknowledges public life and a life in public, which is to say a society distinguishing the individual from the state.” (1) He goes on to discuss the importance of the agora, or main civic gathering place, where business, politics, religion, art, and discourse about all of the above mingled at the height of Athens. Public space is a place for people to engage with each other, as individuals, and with the state, as citizens. It is a place for the exchange of ideas and visions for the future of the state.

Just as good public spaces can support civic (and civil) discourse, ideological debate, and collective imaginings of the future, the public meetings held to design these places should do the same. Unfortunately, these meetings are known for being boring, contentious, and rife with special interest advocates who use the time to grandstand about their own causes, rather than the collective issues on the table.

I propose that a visioning tool like the one I have designed is something that can be a catalyst for better relationships throughout these processes, especially with community-led projects. The tool can be a touchstone that brings people back to the collective vision when the complexities of the process become overwhelming.

An excellent model of a citizen-initiated public project, powered by imagination and collective vision, is that of the Highline. Joshua David and Robert Hammond met at a community board meeting where the proposed demolition of the Highline was on the agenda. When they realized they had a mutual interest in preserving the structure, they teamed up and formed the non-profit Friends of the Highline. They speak eloquently about the importance of vision in a video interview in Interview Magazine (2). David says:

“One of the really special things about The Highline is that it really is a project that came out of the community. Robert and I are both community residents; we came to the project because it was a piece of our neighborhood that we thought was an important piece of our neighborhood and we wanted to see it both preserved and used in an exciting new way in the future. And then other neighbors, other friends, other business owners, the art gallery community of this neighborhood, the business community, architects, preservationists - all from around here - began to rally around the project....The thing that really carried the Highline forward was the vision of it, and it was a vision that Robert and I had at the beginning, but we were also able to present it to people so it became their vision.”

Hammond goes on to sum up:

“I think the most important thing we did was raise the flag and allow other people to come along and help us get it done. That’s what I hope the enduring legacy of the Highline is: to inspire other people that they can start these kind of projects that might seem completely crazy, they might not know how they’re gonna get them done, they don’t have the money to do them. But there’s that power in starting something.”

 The mall, the train, and the river: Downtown Providence

The mall, the train, and the river: Downtown Providence

Why does this matter? Providence is rebranding itself as the Creative Capital. A project that reimagines existing infrastructure would be a very creative undertaking using the city itself as material. It would make the city more attractive to employers and employees by demonstrating that quality of life and modernization matter to the political leadership. Using a method like the one I am advocating, which involves community visioning and creative engagement would make the project that much richer and unique. The involvement of the community creates pride in new projects, and in the city itself.

 Passage through the mall, looking West

Passage through the mall, looking West

A project and process like this announces that Providence is new, relevant, and open for business. It is a continuation of the work that was done opening up the river to create Waterfire Park, and making Memorial Boulevard accessible to pedestrians. Many cities around the country are reevaluating the future of their deteriorating infrastruction. Repair? Rebuild? Reimagine? Remove? Providence could be at the forefront of that debate, generating a great case study.

Providence is already undertaking projects that relate directly to this. The debate around the 6/10 connector is geographically and conceptually related to the idea of reimagining the space under the interchange. Massive renovations are already underway on I-95, with the Southbound viaduct complete, and the Northbound viaduct about to be rebuilt. New concepts for finishing the space below could be incorporated for a fraction of the cost of the overall reconstruction.

Cities tend to be reactive and move incrementally. Crises demand immediate attention, and problems are patched. This results in a patchwork of solutions, an unreliable way at best to maintain a city. Advanced planning and imaginative solutions would have exponential benefits that project far into the future, rather than just addressing immediate issues. I’m suggesting something that is not a fix for a city; there’s nothing technically wrong. But there is an opportunity to make things better and promote growth.

Using an immersive visioning tool like the one I have designed could bridge gaps and start conversations among disparate policy makers, government workers, community members, developers, designers, and other stakeholders who might not otherwise communicate. It could help build new relationships that support future projects. The time, attention, and space that this revisioning booth provides is a good step towards more connected and invested stakeholders.

  1. Kimmelman, Michael. “The Craving for Public Squares.” The New York Review. April 7, 2016 http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/04/07/craving-for-public-squares/
  2.  “Joshua David and Robert Hammond: Friends of the Highline.” Interview Magazine. Published January 15, 2011.

Introduction to Re-Visions... (2 of 3)

In trying to understand this massive and complex site, I attempted to depict it, replicate it, model it, and change it. James Corner describes “mapping as a collective enabling enterprise, a project that both reveals and realizes hidden potential….its agency lies in neither reproduction nor imposition but rather uncovering realities previously unseen or unimagined, even across seemingly exhausted grounds” (1). My attempts to map the space were all aimed at trying to uncover these potentials.

“Avoiding the failure of universalist approaches toward master-planning and the imposition of state-controlled schemes, the unfolding agency of mapping may allow designers and planners not only to see certain possibilities in the complexity and contradiction of what already exists but also to actualize that potential. This instrumental function is particularly important in a world where it is becoming increasingly difficult to both imagine and actually to create anything outside of the normative.”

-James Corner

Most of my attempts stopped before they were completed, and most of them failed to capture the complexity. But the act of trying to recreate the space made me look at it. Really look hard at it. And that led to a deeper comprehension of both the physical landscape, and also the way it fit into the landscape around it. The act of looking got me thinking. If only I could bring people to the space and show them what I see. Of course seeing and looking are not quite the same. In my looking, I saw shimmery vague outlines of potential future structures, events, parks, parties, and markets. I saw them the way you see stars in your peripheral vision: bright at first, and then faded and hard to make out when you focus on them directly.

But I could begin to imagine. And that had come from intense looking and imaginative seeing. Without realising it, I had been embarking on little psychogeographic adventures around the Civic Center Interchange.  I saw my wandering -- “wanderings that express not subordination to randomness but complete insubordination to habitual influences” (2) -- and purposeful observation of my environment as tiny playful rebellions against the established way of using a space. I only found out later that this was close to what Guy Debord and Ivan Chtcheglov were getting at with their dérives and “psychogeographic guides.” James Corner writes:

“the Situationists advocated a series of works that increased public consciousness and promoted direct action and systematic participation in everyday life…More a form of cognitive mapping than mimetic description of the cityscape, Debord’s maps located his own play and representation within the recessive nooks and crannies of everyday life.”

He goes on:

“The political and moral underpinnings of this view gesture towards the valorization of individual participation within a seemingly repressive apparatus of state or bureaucratic power… the Situationists were attempting to return the map to everyday life and to the unexplored, repressed topographies of the city….the essential characteristic shared by all these projects is an ambition to contest and destabilize any fixed, dominant image of the city by incorporating the nomadic, transitive and shifting character of urban experience into spatial representation.”

 A doodle. This project focused on the areas highlighted in blue.

A doodle. This project focused on the areas highlighted in blue.

After circling around the interchange for months, I finally met a construction manager from the RIDOT who was willing to take me inside the interchange, to the “infields” between the roads, where pedestrians could not safely or legally go without an escort. When I was able to actually go see the spaces I had been dreaming and fantasizing about for so long, I was giddy with the feeling that I was right, that there was ample space to build something, and that being under the highway could be exhilarating. I took hundreds of photos.

I thought about sharing the act of looking and seeing with people by guiding walking tours; I realized that physical presence is a critical element for communicating a space’s potential. I was inspired by Janet Cardiff’s narrated tours (3) that addressed both the personal and the architectural scale. However, the logistics of bringing groups of people to a construction site cowed me. The insurance, the phone calls, the bureaucracy, the hard hats-- I abandoned that thought with the intention of revisiting it should any real interest in this site and project develop.

“The thing that really carried the Highline forward was the vision of it, and it was a vision that Robert and I had at the beginning, but we were also able to present it to people so it became their vision.”

-Joshua David, 
Friends of the Highline Co-Founder

In looking at pictures of New York’s Highline, one of the most successful public projects in recent memory, I struggled to find one that captures the unexpected serenity that comes over a visitor as they emerge into the park from the bustle of the street below. Even the noise of the nearby Hudson Yards construction site seems muted. But despite the fact that the project is now complete, and a part of the urban public’s imagination, images frequently fail to capture the visceral feeling one gets while walking on it. The difficulty around conveying the potential of future projects is even more difficult; individual photos are not sufficient.

I laid out some of my infield photos in a panorama and realized that there was something powerful and transporting about being immersed in an image. I had also been thinking about treehouses as an analogy for how I felt under the highway. It was a space that could feel secret, safe, found, cherished: a space that could be made your own. Combining those ideas, I started creating a booth to display the panorama that would create that feeling of agency while allowing people to start to see the place differently. I realized that the panorama made the space inside the booth seem much larger than it physically was. One of my classmates said she felt like she was on vacation when she stood inside. Vacation? Under the highway? Something about the presentation of that image was conveying the magic I sensed about the space. Corner says, “By showing the world in new ways, unexpected solutions and effects may emerge.”

Several people asked why I wasn’t using projection or virtual reality. Virtual reality is rapidly becoming more affordable and available, and several companies worldwide offer tools that allow stakeholders to envision spaces in “before” and “after” states (4, 5, 6). The idea was intriguing, but the high tech element seemed out of place. It wasn’t about wow-ing investors with flash or portraying a concept rendering. Rather it was about getting people to experience potential and imagine possible scenarios for themselves, while having a quiet space away from the often combative atmosphere of community meetings.

The key elements of the experience I wanted to create were immersion, calm, and room for imagination. Additionally, I wanted this experience to be available to anyone who wanted to use it, regardless of budget. I wanted something simple, low-cost, and portable. The realities of creating a prototype of this experience prevented my exploration into a portable option, but I wanted to create a good facsimile of the experience first, and planned to develop the portable container for it in further iterations.

  1. Corner, James. “The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention.” Theories of Mapping Practice and Cartographic Representation The Map Reader (2011): 89-101. Web.

  2. Debord, Guy-Ernest. “The Situationist International Text Library/Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography.” The Situationist International Text Library/Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2016. <http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2>.

  3. Cardiff, Janet. “Her Long Black Hair.” Audio Walk. New York City. 2004. Janet Cardiff | George Bures Miller. Web. Sept. 2015. <http://www.cardiffmiller.com/artworks/walks/longhair.html>.

  4. “Igloo Is the 360º Projection Company.We Create Shared VR Environments.” Igloo Vision. Web. Feb.-Mar. 2016. <http://www.igloovision.com/>.

  5. “Compelling Infrastructure Visualizations.” Infrastructure Visualization & Modeling. Web. Feb.-Mar. 2016. <http://www.autodesk.com/products/infraworks-360/features/visualization/list-view>.

  6. “Giraffe 360.” Giraffe 360. Web. Feb.-Mar. 2016. <http://www.giraffe360.com/>.

Introduction to Re-Visions: Designing a Method for Changing Public Perceptions of Unloved Public Spaces (originally published May 2016) (1 of 3)

There is one question that has been running through my head like a mantra since I arrived in Providence, Rhode Island: “Where are all the people?” According to national statistics (1), Providence is one of the most densely populated metropolitan areas in the country, but that density is not visible on the sidewalks. I ultimately concluded that the answer to my question is, “They’re in their cars, driving like maniacs.”

I first noticed the Providence Civic Center Interchange while scanning Google Earth and looking in disbelief at the proliferation of parking lots downtown. I was trying to understand why such a geographically small city felt so difficult to navigate without a car, why public transportation wasn’t more available, and above all, where all the people were. But my eye kept wandering over to the complex knot of roads in the center of the city. Why would a city permit itself to be cut in half? Why place a major interchange with an interstate at a city’s heart? It may be ironic that despite my desire to create a pedestrian-centric design, I was drawn to a mid-century cathedral to the car. Or perhaps it makes sense to want to initiate change at the altar of the enemy.

reference map.jpg

At the Civic Center Interchange, the highway spins off into a beautiful swooping Celtic knot where I-95 and highways 6 and 10 meet. Not far away is the turn off for I-195. The railroad runs under the intersection. All of this sits just a few feet outside the Providence Place Mall’s parking garage. It is a hub of transportation, commerce, and natural passageways – the Woonasquatucket River runs directly through the whole scene.

 Trafiknettet Nils Ole Lund 1979 http://monikaplatform09.blogspot.com/2011/11/nils-ole-lund-collages.html

Trafiknettet
Nils Ole Lund
1979
http://monikaplatform09.blogspot.com/2011/11/nils-ole-lund-collages.html

While the roads make strangely dramatic patterns from above, from below they carve out spaces where nothing (nothing?) really happens. Construction equipment is stored there while the DOT is rebuilding the northbound I-95 bridge that is part of the interchange. A couple of miles to the west, some overpasses are known shelters for the homeless, and this location may serve that purpose too. I’m sure a certain amount of illicit activity happens at night, as evidenced by the graffiti, trash, and broken glass left behind. Aside from that, it appears that many of the lots under the overpasses are left to lie fallow. Some have grasses and other native flora, some are just patches of dirt. People are rare.

The space I am investigating is not finished; it was never started. By building a superstructure to support intersecting roadbeds, the DOT created a no man’s land with no designed purpose in between it and the ground. However, the space is very real, and has real effects on the neighborhoods around it and the people who pass through it. For some it is willfully made invisible, a literal no man’s land. Some view it as a blight. Across the board, it is unloved. Many abandoned spaces draw their own fan base, the romantic lovers of ancient decay. But this space is neither ancient, nor decayed. It doesn’t have the accompanying nostalgia that develops when a space is “lost” to humans and then subsequently “found.” A newly discovered or rediscovered space is imbued with magic, unknown histories and general charm. A space that has never been considered merely dissolves into the periphery. It cannot be ignored, but it is not acknowledged either. The land beneath the interchange is a place you go around. Going through it is illegal, inconvenient, dangerous, or ugly. And there’s no legitimate reason why you would choose to spend time under the highway (unless you’re unusually curious).

This is hardly a novel condition, and much has been written about the relationship between the American city, the car, and suburban sprawl. Dating even before the generation of sprawl, the interstate traces its roots back to military mobility. President Eisenhower borrowed the idea from the Autobahn and other European highways that he observed during World War II. Guy Debord is referring to Haussman’s boulevards in Paris, but his wording still applies when he says “The concern to have open spaces allowing for the rapid circulation of troops and the use of artillery against insurrections was at the origin of the urban renewal plan adopted by the Second Empire....” (2) Later, the supremacy of the car, interstates and smaller highways fueled sprawl. Debord’s take on the proliferation of cars feels apt for the aspirational yet constantly self-disparaging residents of Rhode Island: “This present abundance of private cars is nothing but the result of the constant propaganda by which capitalist production persuades the masses...that the possession of a car is one of the privileges our society reserves for its privileged members.” Rhode Islanders do love their cars.

 Roadshow, 09 Hubert Blanz 2007 C-Print, Diasec auf Aluminium, 80 x 120 cm http://www.blanz.net/roadshow01.html

Roadshow, 09
Hubert Blanz
2007
C-Print, Diasec auf Aluminium, 80 x 120 cm
http://www.blanz.net/roadshow01.html

In keeping with the trends associated with Urban Renewal, I-95 ripped through Providence around 1965, displacing “slums” and “blighted” areas. The priority at the time was to connect urban centers to each other, and to an ever-growing web of suburban communities. A perceived benefit of this “progress,” according to developers and planners in the school of Robert Moses (3) was the elimination of slum areas, as if bulldozing the physical structures in these areas would be enough to exorcise the intangible demons of poverty. We have since seen that Jane Jacob’s pleas to maintain an active mixed-use street life, with low-rise buildings, makes for a safer, more vibrant neighborhood than the Moses or Le Corbusier master plans that involved high rises with limited access to the street. As we have learned over the last 40 or so years, these projects have isolated and further ghettoized the displaced urban poor, and have worsened rather than improved their lot.

It wasn’t until 1985 that the Civic Center Interchange was built. It connected I-95 with the westbound routes 6 and 10, as well as with local roads leading into Providence’s downcity business district. The interchange itself didn’t displace residents as much as the I-95 corridor did. The area immediately surrounding the interchange was predominantly industrial, and somewhat depressed, much like many other post-industrial cities throughout the Northeast and Rust Belt. The area was also used as a commercial railyard; Amtrak and cargo trains run through the area. I believe the interchange was added as a traffic mitigation effort, since so many major roads converged at that point., as well as an effort towards revitalization of the downtown.

Transportation engineers did not intend to disrupt the surface landscape of the city. In fact, that’s why certain roads were lofted above the local street level – so as to allow a continued flow of traffic (4). However, in such a complicated interchange with multiple on and off ramps converging all at one hub, this complex network of roads is doing all it can to stay out of its own way, let alone making way for pedestrians or slow local street traffic. I don’t know if the traffic engineers considered the spaces they were carving out underneath the overpasses; I imagine that their primary concern was the safe, expedient, and efficient transportation of high-speed vehicles through and around the city. We have since learned that adding more high speed lanes and interchanges in the hearts of cities is not the way to alleviate traffic congestion; in fact it accomplishes the opposite. However, the interchange was built. And negative spaces (negative as in surrounded by solid volumes, and negative as in unloved) were carved out as a byproduct of this structure.

  1. “List of United States Cities by Population Density. ”Wikipedia.” Wikimedia Foundation. Web. Apr. 2016.  <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_cities_by_population_density>.
  2. Debord, Guy-Ernest. “The Situationist International Text Library/Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography.” The Situationist International Text Library/Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2016. <http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2>
  3. “New York.” Documentary. Ric Burns. Public Broadcasting Service. 1999. 

  4. Rapuano, Michael. Freeway in the City - Principles of Planning and Design - a Report to the Secretary, Department of Transportation by the Urban Advisors to the Federal Highway Administrator. 1968. Print.

Preface

Claire Pentecost’s idea of the “public amateur”:

“…[T]he artist becomes a person who consents to learn in public. This person takes the initiative to question something in the province of another discipline, acquire knowledge through unofficial means, and assume the authority to offer interpretations of that knowledge, especially in regard to decisions that affect our lives. The point is not to replace specialists, but to enhance specialized knowledge with considerations that specialties are not designed to accommodate.

-from Abler, by Sarah Hendren

 

“Cities have always offered anonymity, variety, and conjunction, qualities best basked in by walking: one does not have to go into the bakery or the fortuneteller’s, only to know that one might. A city always contains more than any inhabitant can know, and a great city always makes the unknown and the possible spurs to the imagination.”

-Rebecca Solnit

Aaaaand... we're back!

It's been a long time since I've posted here, and a lot has happened. I graduated from RISD, worked at a fabulous company called Ximedica, and moved back home to NYC. In that whirlwind I never published the written portion of my thesis here, as I always meant to. However, the time has come. Keep your eyes peeled for the whole darn thing... posted in installments.

To whet your appetite, here is the abstract:

“Re-Visions” focuses on the importance of engaging thoughtfully with stakeholders when initiating a large-scale public project. The physical outcome of the project is an immersive booth that creates an opportunity for stakeholders to visualize the potential of an unloved public space early in the development process. The booth features a panoramic image of a public space and a soundscape, provoking inspiration and conversation about the possibilities the space might hold. The project began with a study of the Civic Center Interchange in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. The original idea was to investigate how the barren areas under the highway could be redesigned as a recreational attraction aimed at pedestrians. In this book, I outline my process wherein I observed, depicted, illustrated, and modified the space. I conducted interviews with RIDOT employees, public officials, and design professionals. Throughout this process, I sensed deep potential in the area around the interchange, and wanted to create a tool that would allow others to re-envision the space. This booth represents well-considered stakeholder engagement, which leads to more successful city projects with richer outcomes, which in turn bring economic, social, and aesthetic improvements to cities.

IMG_9859.JPG

Grad Show at Rhode Island Convention Center!

Happy to post some final photos of the grad show! I added a series of posters to offer some context for this strange blue box I built. I included the book's abstract in the form of a concert festival-style poster. Bonus pic at the end: the printed book!

Building the thing

Made some progress this weekend and got the structure up! Now the real work begins - installing the panorama, lighting, and sound. For now, here's a time lapse video of the construction process. All 6 panels up in less than 2 minutes! Well, 4 of 6. Didn't think about recording the terrible process of getting the first two panels together ;)