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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
Corner, James. “The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention.” Theories of Mapping Practice and Cartographic Representation The Map Reader (2011): 89-101. Web.
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>.
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>.
“Igloo Is the 360º Projection Company.We Create Shared VR Environments.” Igloo Vision. Web. Feb.-Mar. 2016. <http://www.igloovision.com/>.
“Compelling Infrastructure Visualizations.” Infrastructure Visualization & Modeling. Web. Feb.-Mar. 2016. <http://www.autodesk.com/products/infraworks-360/features/visualization/list-view>.
“Giraffe 360.” Giraffe 360. Web. Feb.-Mar. 2016. <http://www.giraffe360.com/>.