Sunday, January 17, 2010

Design for The Dude, man...

There is a general predilection today in landscape architecture toward designing socially vibrant public spaces. Designers' renderings all show exuberant children and multi-racial families flying kites and eating snow cones and parks are considered successful when they attract hoards of middle-class people looking for leisure and active recreation.

A confluence of factors, including the canonization of Holly Whyte's amazing work and the need to sell people on the idea of city living have led to this tendency- the emphasis on social euphoria. And it is not a bad thing. However, the celebration of spectacle and the proliferation of images and experiences for consumption have come to dominate the conceptualization of public life. Now we have people like the Project for Public Spaces and the New Urbanists who want to triangulate the hell out of the city, making it one cute social interaction and capitalist transaction after another.

The role that landscape architecture has played in the last two decades in designing popular public spaces in cities is commendable. But this is not the only way to create successful public spaces. Vibrant is not the same thing as vital, and one vital typology that is rarely designed or advocated for is the quiet space, where one can simply abide. E. M. Forster captured the sentiment in A Passage to India when he said "There are periods in the most thrilling day during which nothing happens, and though we continue to exclaim, "I do enjoy myself," or, "I am horrified," we are insincere. "As far as I feel anything, it is enjoyment, horror"- it's no more than that really, and a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent."

But what does a landscape look like where one can simply "abide"?  Two common characteristics are: a sense of bigness and a lack of active recreation. Regarding the first characteristic, the space itself need not be huge. It may borrow extended views of water or sky but in the space a person needs a sense of something overwhelming. They need to feel small. This may be on a shoreline or in an open field, a forest, or under some piece of infrastructure. The second characteristic, lack of active recreation, is indicative of the need for separation from the myriad rituals, and compromises, ecstasies and inconveniences of active recreation and work. This separation can be visual, physical, psychological, aural.

These first two characteristics, while integral, are common to many landscape typologies and not necessarily indicative of socially vital spaces. Often, a vast, empty space with no actively programmed uses is a failed space; it is not socially vital. It may still function ecologically, but the built environment is always a balancing act between the social and ecological dynamics of a given place and a place must function on both levels.

To understand what makes a big, quiet space socially vital it is helpful to consider: what would The Dude do? Sure, The Dude may have lived according to an alternate set of values of dubious legitimacy and may have occasionally gotten involved with some perfidious characters, but when it came to a space he knew what was important.

I would posit that it is the non-sequitur that is the defining characteristic of vital quiet space. Something big, not entirely intelligible or logical, interesting in some way; this is the thing that gives us pause, a "what the..." moment. It's enough to distract us from our momentary concerns, yet it's not explicit enough to create another narrative for our minds to run with. It introduces wonder and awe and mystery, and this is reassuring; to know that in a time when our city is totally mapped and everything is ADA accessible and built to be safe and clean, there are still beautiful things that make no sense. In the words of The Dude, the non-sequitur is the rug that really ties the room together.

Quiet vital spaces and socially vibrant spaces are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The obvious example is most places in the city in the winter. With the cold weather people tend to hibernate bear-like and places that are an utter madhouse in the summer become beautiful in their seasonal desolation. The prime example of this is the Coney Island boardwalk. The walkway that traces the grey sea and sky, punctuated by monstrous amusement contraptions and unfortunate Moses-era park shelters create a haunting beauty. Yet in the summer, the place becomes all about the spectacle of human exhibition.

It can be a hard row to hoe convincing clients to invest in a place that isn't going to attract multitudes. After all, the masses buy things and vote in numbers that matter to politicians and businesses. However, if the quiet vital space can also be shown to function ecologically or seasonally as a vibrant space, perhaps we can work in a few more places where well-adjusted folks like Mr. Forster can go just to take a load off, just to sit and be quiet for a bit.

Riverside Park South, New York City

Paseo de la Costa, Buenos Aires

Fort Hamilton Park, Brooklyn (view of the Verrazano Bridge)

The Dude, Los Angeles

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