And now for something completely nerdy.

I had dinner the other night with Sarah Lewis, an urban designer friend of mine, and a self-described meddler (we get along well). It didn’t take much to get her talking about form-based code, one of her specialties. I had only heard of zoning laws, but she explained that while zoning laws are policies that determine what goes inside the buildings, form-based code considers how the outsides of buildings impact the shape of the street. It’s a type of code that considers the three-dimensionality and design aspects of how architecture interacts with and creates the public space around it, which of course has deep impacts on pedestrianism. As Sarah says, “Don’t think of it as a sidewalk, think of it as the space between the buildings.”

From the Form-Based Codes Institute:

“A form-based code is a land development regulation that fosters predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code. A form-based code is a regulation, not a mere guideline, adopted into city, town, or county law. A form-based code offers a powerful alternative to conventional zoning regulation.”

While form-based codes are applied to mixed-use areas, I don't know if or how they are applied to areas where highways intersect with pedestrian zones. It is this interaction of infrastructure and human-scale places that I have been considering. My intention is not to intervene through code, but it seems like form-based code emerged in response to the same things I'm responding to. To be continued…

Brick Project Results!

Here is a series of photos showing the process of making my word bricks, as well as a few tests of the bricks in context!

Walking On Broken Bricks

I have been making bricks this week. The idea came to me when I was walking on Benefit Street and saw a brick with the word “MYTH” carved into it. It was beautiful and surprising and made me stop and think for a second. It interrupted my walking. Around the same time I saw “MYTH,” I was introduced to the memorial in Germany called Stolpersteine, “stumbling blocks,” that are embedded among the cobbles and bear the names of Holocaust victims. I thought it was such a beautiful memorial, recognizing people as individuals where they once lived, but also uniting them as a group that suffered the same fate.

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Simultaneously, I’ve started a new job at Co-Works, a CAD lab at RISD that has all sorts of computer assisted fabrication techniques. Wanting to learn new making skills in this lab, I decided to try to work on my next project using tools available to me there. I decided I would create bricks with patterns or words or signs on them. I have been laser-cutting the top surface design, placing it on a brick-shaped form, and then vacuum forming the block to create a negative, which I will then use as a mold. I am planning to use concrete, but various other materials—ice, silicone, gold—have been suggested to me.

The deeper into this project I get, the more I get asked what the impetus behind this project is. I don’t fully know yet. My current plan is to embed these bricks in spaces where the bricked sidewalk is gap-toothed.

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However, where I initially overlooked any symbolism embedded in a brick, and saw it primarily as a tool for communication and disruption, I have now been thinking about its primary function as a building component. Single bricks have very limited function, but in multiple, they are a strong, ancient construction material. Larger historical symbolism aside, this modularity is something I’ve been trying to capture in my own design work, rather than getting caught up in what the whole building should look like. I’d like to try to create something small that has impact when replicated.

These and other thoughts have led me to question my interest in infrastructure. This brick project is very closely tied with the sticker project I did last semester. The stickers were intended for people to point out issues and comment on their surroundings. The bricks may serve a similar purpose, if I can create a quantity of them and distribute them like old-fashioned type. People could then spell out whatever they like. Is my interest communication within the city? Specifically communication from the people to the people in power? Or person to person? Hidden messages within the city? Secrets? Warnings? Is it about giving people tools to speak out or to broadcast? It’s like analog broadcasting – without mass media, without transmission, requiring the audience to pass over a specific area. Geographically specific broadcasting, the way graffiti functions. You only see it if you are there. (Except that now things can be broadcast second hand through photos and social media.) Places that speak. Billboards. If these walls could talk. If these paving stones could talk. If these bricks could talk. What would they say? Probably, “don’t tread on me.”

I’m also looking at articles talking about place-making. This one was hugely important for me: http://www.pps.org/reference/streets-as-places-how-transportation-can-create-a-sense-of-community/ So far, the most interesting and unifying concept I have arrived at is the idea of the sidewalk as place. It encompasses so many of the ideas and questions I’ve had: advocating for pedestrianism, mixed-use blocks, streets alive with people, activating spaces… The idea of absorbing energy from and contributing to the neighborhood while walking, while moving from point A to point B, is one that I think is at the heart of creating healthy neighborhoods. More vital than a destination that might be created through a place-making project (playground, park, meeting house), the sidewalk is the vasculature that runs through healthy neighborhoods. The street is the domain of the car, but the sidewalk is the domain of the person, and people are the key to neighborhoods.

Last thought of the night: What if I created an East-West walking trail (bricked, of course) that traced the sidewalks that were obliterated by the highway? An unwalkable trail on the roadbed, a sunken bridge across the interstate?

Why would a city permit itself to be cut in half?

When I-95 was built in Providence, RI, that’s exactly what happened. It was 1959, the height of the Urban Renewal movement. Taking a page from Robert Moses’ book, Providence saw the highway as an opportunity to cut the slums out of the city landscape.

Cut the cake scene from Alice in Wonderland from 1985.

I can't help but think of this clip when I talk about cutting things in half. Providence's situation is just as surreal.


I’ve been wandering around underneath the highway, and have become obsessed with one particular chunk of land. It’s right behind the mall, which is smack in the middle of downtown. The highway spins off into a beautiful swooping interchange where I-95 and highways 6 and 10 meet. Not far away is the turn off for I-195. The railroad runs under that intersection. All of this sits just a couple of feet outside the Providence Place Mall’s parking garage. It is a hub of transportation, commerce, and natural passageways - the river also runs right through that intersection.

Road spaghetti. Photo from Google Earth.

Road spaghetti. Photo from Google Earth.

The roadbed makes strangely dramatic and beautiful patterns from above. From below, there are spaces it carves out where nothing (nothing?) really happens. Construction gear is stored there, because they’re expanding and/or replacing the northbound I-95 bridge that is part of the interchange. A couple of miles further west, some overpasses are known shelters for the homeless, and this spot may serve that purpose too. I’m sure a certain amount of illicit activity happens at night. But other than 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.

Man has altered the landscape with the intention of increasing productivity. The city has almost immediate access to the highway, and therefore other major metropolitan areas, like Boston. But the unintended consequences of the highway’s placement have been destructive. The highway cuts off the city from itself, and getting across to the other side is difficult, even for cars. Furthermore, all this 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 weirdly curious, like me).

In other cities around the world, spaces like this are used for parking. This city is pockmarked with surface parking lots and garages. Parking lots take up space that could be occupied by retail, schools, grocery stores, offices, and even residences. It is clear that downtown Providence is intended to be navigated by car, based on all of the amenities built for cars.

So what? This is hardly a novel condition, and much has been written about the relationship between the American city, the car, and suburban sprawl. The thing that remains strange for me is that there are traces in the civic center of a pedestrian-friendly plan. There are sidewalks with retail frontage and strips that lend themselves to a walking nightlife. But the sidewalks are frequently empty, leading me to constantly wonder “Where are all the people?"

I will continue to examine these questions in a series of posts over the next several weeks as part of my thesis research. I am currently wrestling with how all of these questions relate to each other, and what my part in it might be. For now, my obsession with this patch of highway, dirt, asphalt, and concrete symbolizes a city that needs to be better connected.

Waterfire does an admirable job bringing people together from all over the city and beyond. It’s big, it has primal elements of fire and water, it draws people from far away with light and music. It creates a spectacle. Spectacle draws people. I wonder what would happen if I created spectacle in the place where the knife cut the city in half?

Wintersession

Last semester was insane, but amazing. I'm slowly getting my work up in the "Products and Research" section, so please check it out there. In the meantime, I'm taking a graphic design class over wintersession with this guy and having a great time. So far, so good :)