Snøhetta recently unveiled their design for the latest pedestrian-friendly Times Square, which I blogged about last July (Times Square Transformation). While the simple design may seem a bit “underwhelming” coming from the designers of the spectacular Oslo Opera House and Alexandria Library, the firm presented a smart and appropriate plan for Times Square. The raised darker pavers on Broadway (between 42nd-47th Streets) denote the pedestrian area from the vehicles. Striated benches throughout the plaza give a nod to old traffic directions and help to separate gawking tourists from Midtown commuters. The most pizzazz involved in the design are coin-sized reflectors in the stone pavers. The intention was to not compete with the spectacle but to focus on creating a safe communal gathering plaza. The construction will also include repairing infrastructure below Broadway, such as an old trolley track.
My first reaction was that any firm could have designed this proposal. If this is all there is to it, why did a high-profile firm get to design it? Give an up-and-coming firm a chance. However, I realized that maybe a firm like Snøhetta is one of a few who aren’t compelled to make a splashy statement. It is rather bold of them to come out with a no-frills plaza. A lesser-known studio might have felt the pressure to over-design the space in order to “prove” their ability. The glitz of Times Square is a tempting snare, but a confident firm like Snøhetta can resist the urge to add to the spectacle. They created public space for consuming the spectacle.
While these are the first renderings the public has seen, there will be more meetings with city officials before the design is finalized. Construction is slated to begin Fall 2012.
Does this look familiar? No, it is not Berlin – it is Perm, Russia. In a surprising counter to the events I explored at Tacheles in Berlin, economic and cultural development are sought in order to bring back to life a city on the edge of Siberia. This is especially unexpected given the political environment which still largely adheres to communist principles. Located approximately 900 miles east of Moscow, this post-Soviet city of 1,000,000 people was once a hub for military production facilities, with a former gulag (prison camp) just outside the city. The Gulag Museum now houses a critically-aclaimed theater.
Today, with the grand vision of regional governor Oleg Chirkunov and a $53 million cultural development budget for the year, Perm’s transformation from industrial city to avant-garde was initiated. Unlike the developers at Tacheles, Perm is seeking development where artists can beautify the city while also promoting economic development. Berlin seems like a model for Perm, in that it is becoming a cheap cultural center in a post-industrial town and post-autocratic country. Chirkunov’s desire is to give Perm a post-soviet identity by attracting intellectuals and artists. The strategy was to deploy art and theatre to attract young people back to the city. “To Perm! To Perm!” -a twist on the famous line “To Moscow!” from Chekov’s “Three Sisters”- represents the Moscow artists now flocking to Perm. In order to rebrand the city, the governor assembled a team including a former avant-garde theater director in Moscow as minister of culture, city planners, and KCAP architects from the Netherlands. The city commissioned graffiti artists from New York and Mexico to create murals along strips of infrastructure. The Perm Museum of Modern Art (PERMM) opened in March 2009 and caters to the avant-garde art scene. The museum does not shy away from portraying Lenin in a critical light, whereas in the Soviet era would have been censored -take a look at a video of the squirming former Communist leader in his coffin. However, not everyone is enthusiastic about the revitalization efforts, either believing it is a waste of money or holding an indifferent attitude. The Communist Party call the cultural program “pornographic” and “pseudo-liberal”. The focus on culture is risky in Russia’s residually hostile political climate.
KCAP architects designed the 50-year master plan for Perm to be more compact yet open, thus avoiding an unsuccessful sponge or donut-like urban plan. They proposed a layered vision for future development, “It demonstrates strategies and tools to be used in transforming cities designed under the central planning paradigm into contemporary living environments of appropriate density at a human scale.” KCAP’s spatial framework to guide transformation includes a layering of the built fabric, a public space network, street network, a mixed-use concept, and prioritized locations. One of the designated priorities is the Perm Embankment City Park. This public-space is a locally-scaled design within the master plan, also by KCAP. The project desires to engage the Kama River waterfront location, including the nearby forests and mountains, by connecting back to the city. The major design moves consist of connector buildings which will serve as park entrances, strolling boulevards directly along the riverside, and a “city balcony” which acts as a transition space between the city and park. Playgrounds, cafes and an outdoor swimming pool will be inserted as specifically programmed spaces.
If this transformation produces tangible change, which it already seems to, it could possibly lead to a more free society for Russia. Perhaps the next election, citizens will expect their leaders to balance spending on social programs with investment in a cultural future. Yet another example of spatial diplomacy.
As I was skimming twitter this morning (seems like one of a million social media sites I somehow belong to…ah, to be Gen Y), I happened upon the tweet below, which made me think if I could even count on one hand architecturally significant sites in Indianapolis. My immediate reaction was to let ArchDaily know that Columbus, Indiana is located just 45 min south of Indianapolis and holds much more interesting modernist buildings. You can even skip over to Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio and find Zaha, Eisenman, Gehry, Morphosis, or stop at IKEA for your consumer-fix (Indy doesn’t even have an IKEA, imagine that!). However, I couldn’t stop thinking about Indianapolis.
Indianapolis is my hometown and post-graduation-interim-location. After high school, my mindset was to move away for new experiences, more opportunities, and better architecture. I found myself far away in Syracuse, NYC, and Europe for 5 years. My attitude about my hometown didn’t change much; in fact I grew more critical as I became increasingly New York-centric. However, I realize that not all cities can be or should be a booming metropolis like New York. The issue is that Indianapolis has potential to be a mid-sized urban center. It is, after all, the 12th largest city in the US, ahead of Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco. It is the second largest city in the Midwest, and growing, behind Chicago, which equates to tax dollars. It has faired much better economically than other nearby cities like Detroit and Cleveland. There has always been something frustrating and puzzling about the potential and disappointing lack of urban/architectural follow-through. In an effort to understand the Indianapolis condition, I have tried to pinpoint some of the issues which curb architectural progression:
1) Indianapolis plays it safe – Decisions are made with a conservative and safe attitude. To the general population, architects just design houses. Architecture is not what you see on HGTV; yes, but that is only a small part of our capacity as designers. The city seems to value architecture at face value, rather than a medium to improve public spaces or help alleviate infrastructural, food, or social crises. Major architectural commissions (world-class opportunity) go to local firms who produce functional and pleasant enough -yet safe projects, which do not put Indy on the map. For instance, the newly built downtown Marriot was intended to be one of the city’s finest hotels. The initial design proposal received harsh criticism because it was too boring; it was a tall rectangle. While everyone was yawning, the architects decided to bend the rectangle into a slight curve. Cue the sarcasm -the building was now exciting and the Marriot was built. I am not necessarily endorsing someone of “starchitecture” stature, however there are plenty of exceptional firms around the country, and specifically the Midwest, doing just as important built and paper work: Studio Gang (Chicago), UrbanLab (Chicago), LA DALLMAN (Milwaukee), Blostein/Overly Architects (Columbus, OH).
2) Alternative Transportation – The city lacks sufficient public transportation. The bus system was nearly shut down due to financial problems last year. While public bus transit is the cheapest option, certain stigmas are attached to bus use. Not only should public transit provide an option for those without any other means, it can also become an alternative mode for suburbanites commuting into the city and a connection to major areas of the city such as the airport. Indianapolis has a fairly small downtown while the rest of the city is a radius of sprawl. Due to that urban layout, public transit can be justified and is necessary. If I am shopping downtown at Circle Center mall and want to go to the Indianapolis Art Museum, I have to hop in my car since it is on the outskirts of the downtown nucleus. There has been a major attempt to add bike and pedestrian paths as seen in the Monon Trail, but cars dominate downtown.
3) Sports rule, not the arts - Although Indianapolis has a fantastic symphony and art museum, sporting events are what populate the city the most. Typically, cultural institutions champion progressive ideas that are manifested physically in its structure. When most tax dollars are being spent on sporting arenas, there isn’t much left for cultural institutions. Unless you are building the Allianz Arena or Bird’s Nest, there is not much room for architectural expression. Eli Lilly and Company and Simon Property Group are two local companies who have the weight and money to support the shaping of the city. If they want to invest in the city and have their companies known as progressive corporations, they can turn to good design.
4) How is academia helping? – Look at architectural theses and you’ll find a myriad of ways architecture can attempt to not only improve the built environment but address various crises. Architecture school is one of the best educations one could get. It forms a way of thinking and problem solving. The world isn’t black and white. You are trained to see the potential in environments and become opportunistic. The nearest school of architecture is one hour away at Ball State. The school needs to become more radical in its involvement in city planning and take advantage of Indianapolis as a laboratory. If the administration doesn’t, the students need to jumpstart an initiative. Academia should help to generate more “outside of the box” ideas that bring about needed change. Its nearest city should be a test bed for their design proposals.
5) Brain Drain – Where is the young, educated, and energetic population? I am an example of that group who move out of Indiana. Many move to nearby Chicago. If you look at Portland and Austin, what partially sets them apart is the productivity and creativity of the young educated population. They cultivate a culture where young people want to stick around. Young entrepreneurs need a climate where they can start a business or non-profit and be taken seriously. Why not start a music festival (SXSW) or regularly scheduled street fairs? Young creatives have the ability to draw attention to possibilities because we are less jaded and more open to new ways of thinking. Who cares if it is naïve, it is that necessary optimism which can inject ideas into a litany of woes.
On the flip side there are several positive organizations and factors starting to contribute to a significant movement:
1) Indianapolis Museum of Art – CEO Maxwell Anderson is used to world-class cities, leaving the Whitney Museum (and its Koolhaas expansion) in NYC for the IMA. I could make a blog post alone listing what Anderson has done to transform the IMA and the art and design dialogue in Indianapolis. His promotion of design started as soon as he arrived in Indy. He started a serious conversation by initiating the design branch of the museum including its first exhibit European Design Since 1985. Since that initial exhibit, the IMA has projected itself as a leader in contemporary art and design as demonstrated in the acquisition of Eero Saarinen’s Miller House, 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park, this year’s U.S. Venice Biennale entry, and a design lecture series featuring Greg Lynn among many others.
2) People for Urban Progress – PUP are a “do”-tank non-profit organization that “promotes and advances public transit, environmental awareness, and urban design.” It started when they used the demolished RCA Dome canvas top to create bags, wallets, and public shade structures as a way to generate money to fund their projects. They are an action-based group, hence the coin “do”-tank, who understand the general unawareness of the power of design for neighborhoods and cities. Their goal is to call attention to urban issues and act.
3) Monorail – Indianapolis does have the beginnings of a monorail system. While it only connects the downtown hospitals, there is potential for it to become a convenient connector for the city and surrounding areas. It is safer than light rail and does not interrupt vehicular traffic.
4) Airport – The newly built Indianapolis International Airport is a great welcome into the city. The layout and parking arrangement is convenient. The collective lobby/food court is light and airy. There is even a significant public art deployment throughout the airport and parking garage. Imagine if you were also met with a monorail that would deliver you directly downtown to your hotel. That would be icing on the cake.
5) Event City – The city is in fact home to many international events, mainly sports related (Super Bowl, Final Four, and Indianapolis 500). The convention center also holds many events drawing people from around the country. With the world-stage and national-stage within grasp, Indy should dazzle.
Looking past all of my criticisms, Indianapolis is a great city brimming with possibilities that need to be tapped into. To an architect, that is the most exciting scenario.
‘Dead Drops’ by German artist Aram Bartholl during his artist in residence at EYEBEAM in New York City, October 2010.
Participatory urban intervention…file sharing in public space!
In July 2011 DeadDrops will be a part of the “Talk to Me” exhibit at MoMA New York.
Citizens in Motion: Monument to Freedom and Unity
Berlin, Germany (former East Berlin)
Designers Milla & Partner, Stuttgart and Berlin choreographer Sasha Waltz
After 10 years in limbo, Citizens in Motion has been approved by Germany’s Culture Minister as the chosen monument to German reunification. The kinetic monument is set in motion when the weight of visitors tip the “disc”. It can accommodate up to 1400 people but only needs 20 people to tilt it. Milla & Partner describe the vision as “it will be a continually changing choreographic expression of the Peaceful Revolution of 1989.” The designers hope people will discover informal uses for the disc, such as theatrical performances, the obvious skatepark, and anything else that occurs to visitors.
Since the minister’s decision, the project has drawn sharp criticism. Is it a collective action or a gimmick? Proponents feel it is a joyful counter to the more somber Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. In response to to the critics, I see no problem with the concept. While the project could take on a more serious tone, it was decided that this monument in particular would celebrate those who gathered in peaceful protest. It is a monument that can be activated for any use imagined, thus taking on two hats. The aim is not what activities take place on the disc, but the symbolic gesture of joining together as actors in urban theater…à la the Peaceful Revolution of 1989.
Milla & Partner’s website caught my eye with two appropriate quotes that continue the theme of this blog:
“The most beautiful pictures are those created in the minds of the audience.”
“It’s the right interface, the point where people and information meet, that is crucial for conveying the message.”
Flickr Mapping is a concept I generated while researching my thesis. Due to the nature of the project, the site is not necessarily understood through traditional representational methods. Plans, sections, and elevations are not as effective in describing the site. Rather, it can be documented and analyzed through a series of photographs –or moments in time, similar to Bertolt Brecht’s “Interruption” (Epic Theatre), which is a representation of situations. Photographs are the site. The invention of Flickr has allowed people to post their experiences online for the public. This system allows one to understand the events and practices at Tacheles. Photos joined with techniques such as collage, montage, and cinemetric diagramming describe the site and future architectural interventions. This is an enhanced medium for mapping out actions, behaviors, patterns, overlaps, and circulations.
Flickr Mapping draws from Walter Benjamin’s writings on montage and phantasmagoria in describing the urban flâneur. It is a physiognomy of the urban landscape representing the urban tableaux. Tacheles is best understood through situations that are played out over time due to its constant programming of events. Flickr allows different perspectives (from various social classes) to be captured, therefore, a collection of these photos describe the site better than traditional architectural standards.
During the design phase the concept reemerged in my representation. The site axon serves as reference for locating the urbanite’s point of view via renderings. The pink silhouettes and dashed line display the location of the person and the direction of their gaze and vice versa. Corresponding renderings capture the same moment in time from two vantage points and continues the Flickr montage spirit.
Thesis Awards Jurors on my review:
Anda French_SU Primary Advisor
Aaron Betsky_Cincinnati Art Museum
James Dallman_LA DALLMAN
Robert S. Livesey_Knowlton School of Architecture, Ohio State University
Lea Ciavarra_SU Advisory Board/Lubrano Ciavarra Design
Bruce Fowle_SU Advisory Board/FXFOWLE Architects