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Earlier this month, the Pritzker Prize jury declined to retroactively include architect Denise Scott Brown in the 1991 award given to her husband and design partner, Robert Venturi. The jury’s action came in response to a petition created by two Harvard design students. An award-winning planning blog in my hometown, Smart City Memphis, used the occasion to remind readers about the last downtown plan that Brown worked on – the plan Downtown Memphis from 1986-87. In a post titled, Cobwebs Greeted Prestigious Downtown Plan, Tom Jones of Smart City Memphis relates the discouraging side of long-range planning as revealed by Brown’s experience in Memphis:

Downtown Memphis became the canvas for her firm’s last plan of its kind, primarily because they were losing money on them.

If it was her swan song, it was a magnificent one.  The Center City Development Plan was released in 1987 and its erudition, insights and recommendations were captured in the most impressive report ever delivered to Memphis.  There were about 20 volumes [!! emphasis added] replete with drawings, thoughtful insights, and provocative and solid recommendations.  As an associate with Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, respected Memphis architect James Williamson – now an associate professor of architecture at University of Memphis – was a vital part of the team that developed the downtown plan and was instrumental in weighing options.

Unfortunately, the ambitious and impressive plan was largely ignored.  Instead of funding the summary volume that would lay out next steps and implementation, the Center City Commission took that money and paid for yet another redesign of Court Square Park.  It was also a time of leadership transition at Center City Commission and a time when government and developers were largely unreceptive to a scholarly approach to the future of downtown, instead of quick fixes like festival market places.  The failure of Memphis to embrace the plan was another factor in her firm’s decision to end planning of this kind.

Jones goes on to evaluate why the plan floundered.

It’s likely that her work was doomed from the beginning.  Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates selected by a one-vote margin.  Developer-friendly representatives on the selection committee supported a firm whose trademark was festival marketplaces.  The other half of the committee was people more interested in the urban fabric and the historic character of downtown.  At the end of the selection process, the votes were divided down the middle, and the deciding vote was cast by the chair of the selection committee.

In retrospect, while the plan was excellent, its impact and import were undermined by lack of support by some key downtown interests.  They criticized Ms. Scott Brown’s style, her approach to planning, the extensive public input process, and her openness in public discussions.

As one of these people said at the time, “we could have had a festival marketplace but instead we got a lot of preservationist talk.”  Over time, they would be proven wrong as festival marketplaces opened with banners and fanfare and closed some years later.  The public wanted authenticity and governments and downtown agencies were delivering up artificially contrived shopping arcades.

A video of Denise Scott Brown discussing the Memphis plan:

In Her Own Words

 

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Photograph by The Eng Koon/National Geographic

We all know about the amazing expansion of, and creation of new, Chinese cities over the past couple of decades. Discussion of the significance of all that growth is inconsistent. Perhaps we don’t know what conclusions to draw from China because so much of the world seems in flux these days. Straight line projections are more dubious than ever. A couple of articles in the online journal, Foreign Policy, expose our confusion over China, in my opinion.

On August 13, 2012, the journal published an article by Isaac Stone Fish with the provocative title, Unlivable Cities. Fish paints a stark picture of life in Chinese cities. He says that the megacities “may seem impressive on paper, but they are awful places to live.” Fish’s perspective comes from living in China for seven years and traveling widely within it. He first decries the remarkable sameness of many Chinese cities.

Yes, China’s cities are booming, but there’s a depressing sameness to what you find in even the newest of new boomtowns. Consider the checklist of “hot” new urban features itemized in a 2007 article in the Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, including obligatory new “development zones” (sprawling corporate parks set up to attract foreign direct investment), public squares, “villa” developments for the nouveau riche, large overlapping highways, and, of course, a new golf course or two for the bosses. The cookie-cutter approach is such that even someone like Zhou Deci, former director of the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design, told the paper he has difficulty telling Chinese cities apart.

This model of endless fractal Beijings wouldn’t be so bad if the city itself were charming, but it is a dreary expanse traversed by unwalkable highways, punctuated by military bases, government offices, and other closed-off spaces, with undrinkable tap water and poisonous air that’s sometimes visible, in yellow or gray. And so are its lesser copies across the country’s 3.7 million square miles, from Urumqi in the far west to Shenyang way up north. For all their economic success, China’s cities, with their lack of civil society, apocalyptic air pollution, snarling traffic, and suffocating state bureaucracy, are still terrible places to live.

Fish saves his harshest critique for Harbin, the northern Chinese city with over 6 million residents that is the home of the Harbin Institute of Technology and the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. (A good number of Chinese landscape architecture students studying in the U.S. hail from Harbin.)

Like many Chinese cities, Harbin can be extremely challenging to the health — and not just due to the sometimes scandalously toxic food served in dim, poorly lit restaurants. Hospital bathrooms in Harbin and elsewhere often lack soap and toilet paper, ostensibly out of fear that residents will steal the items. Six months after I arrived, a benzene spill in the nearby Songhua River briefly left the city without running water. The air in Harbin was so polluted that I felt as though the coal dust had sunk into my lungs, and a fine layer of black soot seeped in through our windows overnight. But even Harbin wasn’t as filthy as Linfen, a city of 4 million people in central China’s Shanxi province that Time in 2007, on a list of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, said made “Dickensian London look as pristine as a nature park.”

Whoa! Not exactly a gleaming city of the future! Fish lightens up a bit toward the end of the article, but the focus is clearly on the “unlivability” aspect. Contrast that with another Foreign Policy article from the Sept/Oct, 2012 issue  and the cognitive dissonance is hard to avoid. Dustin Roasa tells us that the cities of the future are made in China. Is that supposed to be exciting, or terrifying? Roasa lands on exciting. Roasa’s claims ring true too, as he says “China is at the forefront of the world’s flashiest urban innovations.” Roasa recites a list of Chinese innovations, some familiar, some not, and he begins his article with lines designed to make Americans cringe. It’s the familiar meme:

just 12 years into the Asian Century, the city of the future has picked up and moved to China. No less than U.S. Vice President Joe Biden recognized this when he said not long ago, “If I blindfolded Americans and took them into some of the airports or ports in China and then took them to one in any one of your cities, in the middle of the night … and then said, ‘Which one is an American? Which one is in your city in America? And which one’s in China?’ most Americans would say, ‘Well, that great one is in America.’ It’s not.” The speech raised eyebrows among conservative commentators, but it points out the obvious to anyone who has spent time in Beijing, Hong Kong, or Shanghai (or even lesser-known cities like Shenzhen and Dalian, for that matter).

In these cities, visitors arrive at glittering, architecturally arresting airports before being whisked by electric taxis into city centers populated by modular green skyscrapers. In the not-so-distant future, they’ll hop on traffic-straddling buses powered by safe, clean solar panels. With China now spending some $500 billion annually on infrastructure — 9 percent of its GDP, well above the rates in the United States and Europe — and with the country’s population undergoing the largest rural-to-urban migration in human history, the decisions it makes about its cities will affect the future of urban areas everywhere. Want to know where urban technology is going? Take the vice president’s advice and head east.

OK, China is a huge country, and Harbin and Shanghai are very different places. But the efforts exerted in Beijing to alleviate air pollution in advance of the Olympics make it clear that the horrible and the impressive can coexist. If, indeed, Chinese cities are the cities of the future – models for the rapidly growing cities in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere – what part of the model will we get?

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In difficult economic times, landscape architects – and other designers, artists – may begin to doubt the value of what they do. I think Frank Bruni’s column on parks in New York City serves as a testimonial. Take heart, ye servants of the people!

Whenever you doubt that the future can improve upon the past or that government can play a pivotal role in that, consider and revel in the extraordinary greening of New York.

This city looks nothing — nothing — like it did just a decade and a half ago. It’s a place of newly gorgeous waterfront promenades, of trees, tall grasses and blooming flowers on patches of land and peninsulas of concrete and even stretches of rail tracks that were blighted or blank before. It’s a lush retort to the pessimism of this era, verdant proof that growth remains possible, at least with the requisite will and the right strategies.

The transformation of New York has happened incrementally enough — one year the High Line, another year Brooklyn Bridge Park — that it often escapes full, proper appreciation. But it’s a remarkable, hopeful stride.

It’s also emblematic of a coast-to-coast pattern of intensified dedication to urban parkland. While so much of American life right now is attended by the specter of decline, many cities are blossoming, with New York providing crucial inspiration.

This is my favorite line: “It’s a lush retort to the pessimism of this era, verdant proof that growth remains possible, at least with the requisite will and the right strategies.” Soul-satisfying for all involved.

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Last summer, I began this blog with several posts aimed at graduates of landscape architecture programs who have faced difficulty in the tough job market. Some of those posts, like this one and this one, have been among the most popular. When I saw the series of opinion pieces in the New York Times Sunday Review (June 3, 2012) titled “My Brilliant Career,” with the tagline of “it’s worth remembering that careers aren’t built in a straight line, and that sometimes the oddest jobs are the ones that matter most,” I knew I had to read the articles. I especially like the entry by Leonard Mlodinow and the excerpt below.

Many of us wish for the security of a straight line path. When a career proves to be more unpredictable, it can be disconcerting. But the sinuous path often leads to a fulfilling life. And sinuous is an apt descriptor for many landscape architecture careers. Take heart and be inspired by Mlodinow’s words.

When we’re in college, we think about our future as a direct line from now to then, from here to there. You might get an internship at a financial services firm, then become an assistant, and gradually move up until someday you’re the boss. That’s a fine life’s path. But if you look at the careers of many successful people, you’ll find that their route is often far more sinuous. And if you look at happy people, you’ll find even fewer who traveled a straight line.

When I got my first job at Caltech after graduate school, a famous mathematician warned me not to keep working on that theory of infinite dimensions. It’s a bad idea to make a career of your Ph.D. work, he told me. Then, when I began to consider problems in an apparently too different area of physics, he told me: “You can’t keep jumping around. You have to stay in the field you made your name in.” I was 26, and I was supposed to think the boundaries of my career were already sharply defined.

The life that mathematician urged on me would probably have been an equally happy one. But instead of listening to his advice, I have written for television, produced computer games, designed a curriculum for math education and returned to Caltech, to physics research, teaching and writing — this time, nonfiction. I still see that famous mathematician, now an elder statesman, walking around the campus. I haven’t talked to him in a few years, but I hear that when my name comes up, he just mutters and shakes his head. And that’s fine with me.

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Medellín, Columbia, a city once known for catastrophic levels of drug violence and now considered by many to be “reborn,” was the subject of an article in the New York Times yesterday. New public architecture, infrastructure, and public space are noticeable drivers of change in this city, and the author, Michael Kimmelman, describes the physical changes and illustrates them with a slideshow. Kimmelman also calls our attention to an essential fact of urban renaissance – there has to be a mechanism for financing it. Medellín has a vehicle for transformation that no U.S. Rust Belt city has.

Medellín, by contrast [with Bogotá, a city now struggling to maintain its achievements], still counts on an almost fierce parochial pride, a legacy of decent Modernist architecture dating back to the 1930s, a cadre of young architects being aggressively nurtured and promoted, and a commitment by local businesses to improve social welfare that begins with the city’s biggest business: its state-owned utilities company, E.P.M.

You can’t begin to grasp Medellín’s architectural renaissance without understanding the role of E.P.M., the Empresas Públicas de Medellín, which supplies water, gas, sanitation, telecommunications and electricity. It’s constitutionally mandated to provide clean water and electricity even to houses in the city’s illegal slums, so that unlike in Bogotá, where the worst barrios lack basic amenities, in Medellín there’s a safety net.

More than that, E.P.M.’s profits (some $450 million a year) go directly to building new schools, public plazas, the metro and parks. One of the most beautiful public squares in the middle of Medellín was donated by E.P.M. And atop the slums of the city’s Northeast district, E.P.M. paid for a park in the mountaintop jungle, linked to the district by its own cable car.

Federico Restrepo used to run E.P.M., before he became the city planner under Mr. Fajardo. “We took a view that everything is interconnected — education, culture, libraries, safety, public spaces,” he told me, pointing out that while fewer than 20 percent of public school students here used to test at the national average in 2002, by 2009 the number exceeded 80 percent.

“Obviously it’s not just that we built and renovated schools,” he said. “You have to work on the quality of teaching and nutrition in conjunction with architecture. But the larger point is that the goal of government should be providing rich and poor with the same quality education, transportation and public architecture. In that way you increase the sense of ownership.”

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Image credit: personaldevelopmentplanning.pbworks.com

A 1992 article titled Wicked Problems in Design Thinking by Richard Buchanan in Design Issues journal is worth a fresh look, and, in fact, it continues to be cited by many authors. [A description and definition of wicked (and super wicked) problems can be found here.] I found the discussion of the communication gap between scientists and designers to be especially interesting.

Members of the scientific community, however, must be puzzled by the types of problems addressed by professional designers and by the patterns of reasoning they employ. While scientists share in the new liberal art of design thinking, they are also masters of specialized subject matters and their related methods, as found in physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, the social sciences, or one of the many subfields into which these sciences have been divided. This creates one of the central problems of communication between scientists and designers, because the problems addressed by designers seldom fall solely within the boundaries of any one of these subject matters (pg. 14).

Buchanan then speculates that the heart of the problem is the indeterminate nature of the problems addressed by designers. In other words, design problems are wicked because they are indeterminate.

Design problems are “indeterminate” and “wicked” because design has no special subject matter of its own apart from what a designer perceives it to be. The subject matter of design is potentially universal in scope, because design thinking may be applied to any area of human experience. But in the process of application, the designer must discover or invent a particular subject out of the problems and issues of specific circumstances. This sharply contrasts with the disciplines of science, which are concerned with understanding the principles, laws, rules, or structures that are necessarily embodied in existing subject matters. Such subject matters are undetermined or under-determined, requiring further investigation to make them more fully determinate. But they are not radically indeterminate in a way directly comparable to that of design (pg.16).

Buchanan further explains:

design is fundamentally concerned with the particular, and there is no science of the particular.

In actual practice, the designer begins with what should be called a quasi-subject matter, tenuously existing within the problems and issues of specific circumstances. Out of the specific possibilities of a concrete situation, the designer must conceive a design that will lead to this or that particular product. A quasi-subject matter is not an undetermined subject waiting to be made determinate. It is an indeterminate subject waiting to be made specific and concrete (pg. 17).

Buchanan explains how designers deal with indeterminacy through his theory of “placements” – signs, things, and actions organized by unifying ideas or thoughts.

This is where placements take on special significance as tools of design thinking. They allow the designer to position and reposition the problems and issues at hand. Placements are the tools by which a designer intuitively or deliberately shapes a design situation, identifying the views of all participants, the issues which concern them, and the invention that will serve as a working hypothesis for exploration and development. In this sense, the placements selected by a designer are the same as what determinate subject matters are for the scientist. They are the quasi-subject matter of design thinking, from which the designer fashions a working hypothesis suited to special circumstances.

This helps to explain how design functions as an integrative discipline. By using placements, the designer establishes a principle of relevance for knowledge from the arts and sciences, determining how such knowledge may be useful to design thinking in a particular circumstance without immediately reducing design to one or another of these disciplines (pg. 17-18).

I am particularly interested in essays like this one that explore the relationship between design and the sciences – natural, physical, and social. Landscape architecture academics often find themselves having to prove the value of design thinking in relation to the scientific disciplines that dominate university campuses. Explication of the unique role of design and its relationship to other disciplines aids this process. But, Buchanan’s work is just one perspective. Do any challenges to his stance come to mind? Or thoughts that expand on his work? Feel free to comment by following the link.

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Take a look at this Next American City review of the Museum of Modern Art’s Foreclosed exhibit.

Curated by Barry Bergdoll and produced in less than three years (lightning-fast for large museums like MoMA), Foreclosed presents five architectural projects that rethink the suburbs from their economic underpinnings to their aesthetic character. But while the exhibit’s thesis that sprawl is toxic jives with that of many urbanists, the architectural remedies on display seem almost as problematic.

And the crux of the criticism:

It was critically apparent that none of the architects participating in the exhibit actually live in the suburbs (a fact confirmed by the exhibit’s curator). …snip… This outsider perspective on the suburbs is the exhibit’s crucial flaw and inevitably influenced the architects to propose interventions in suburbia that have all the grace of a superblock in the middle of the city grid. Despite their good intentions, their efforts at sustainability and their smart alternatives to homeownership, the architects’ wrath for the suburbs has caused them to create projects that annihilate the suburbs rather than improve them.

Follow the link for the full review, and see some images from the exhibition here. And while you are at the Next American City site, check out the article titled, What Legos Can Teach Us About Civic Participation.

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