Kent State University (Jacob)



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    The Potential Myth of Urban Design

    By jacob
    Feb 24, '09 12:09 AM EST

    Urban Design:

    What is it? What's the scope? What do you do? What don't you do? How far is too far? How do you design anything that will be urban design? Can urban design happen?


    It's not the street grid that makes the city a nice place to be.
    It's small catalysts that you can't design that do.

    As an 'urban design student' we can sketch thousands of renderings showing populated parks and street frontages, but how does that translate? How do we do relevant things that work, and we can show? How do we show it? You can't spec out a nice space to be

    "Large Urban Park, 52 acres, well maintained. Fill with diverse people, environmentally minded, highly interested in public transit. (TYP)."

    It's pretty frustrating to go from architecture to this.

    Mind you, I never signed up for this....(kind of). I did. But I didn't really want to. I'd be happier with some semblance of building things. Or the building scale.

    And it's tough to reconcile my wants for it to be architecture with the scope of urban design. I want to work out little bits, I want to think about prototypes of buildings, I want to design things at a smaller, more intimate scale.

    All the while, it feels like our direction calls for letting go, and yet expanding our realm. At times, it feels like what we're doing is trying to be specifically unspecific about things (which I understand) but maybe that makes me doubt the relevance of urban design. If somebody's not making the tricky detail decisions, then who's to say it'll be a nice place? If all I'm doing is big sweeping gestures and ideas of connectivity, then how am I different from a developer? ( I'm thinking through critiques, and struggling, this is about when one of the staff members disclaims their non-subscription to the evils of new-urbanism).

    Aren't all of the "best" urban spaces unplanned? organic? potentially the result of hundreds (or thousands) of years of legitimate use by people?

    Similarly, what urban design examples from recent times have actually been good ideas? Manhattan, famously developed for maximum profit is great...but has nothing to do with making a 'nice space.' The garden cities are somewhat of pre-new-urbanism jokes....they kind of happened and then serve as an example. Modernism, Brutalism, etc.....all 'okay on paper'...not so much in reality (except admired by architects who 'know why they're significant'). And then there's new urbanism, and it's unfortunate pigeonholing of design as something that you can do from a book....and the creation and misnomer of lifestyle centers and the EIFS style.

    So then you think...what spaces do I like to be in?

    The comfortable, cheap, diverse, would-be-gentrified-if-people-actually-wanted-to-live-here, Ohio City?

    The hip psuedo-college neighborhood that has backyard house parties with friends?

    European towns and the off-the-beaten-path streets that feel "authentic?"

    The inner, first-round suburb, that lucked into strong community leadership and maintained itself as a nice place to be; close yet not downtown?

    Downtown?....the 100 year old Burnham plan that's since been hacked by 100 years of not-in-the-original-plan antics and unfinished busniess? Cleveland has one tower from an extensive I.P. Pei project (which is pretty terrible...) and a few other "false starts"

    It's tough.
    I'm trying to buy into it.
    It's probably good that it's frustrating Like bad-tasting medicine.
    I think my feelings are echoed by my colleagues.


    • fine line

      In response to how to resolve the paradox between creator (architect) and user (public), you might find this article useful :
      Think about the bigger ideas and I'm sure that you will end up finding the scale liberating.

      Feb 24, 09 1:19 am  · 

      i recommend a pill of jane jacobs

      Feb 24, 09 8:08 am  · 

      Ugh, I definitely do not recommend a pill of Jane Jacobs.

      I'm assuming you've researched OMA's "tree city" proposal for a city park in Toronto? Very interesting answer to your dilemma. Bob Somol's article on it (called "Green Dots" I believe) is good reading, too.

      Feb 24, 09 8:18 am  · 

      you should have gone into landscape architecture. we actually create places and spaces.

      Feb 24, 09 9:49 am  · 
      Carl Douglas (agfa8x)

      perhaps urban design could be the design of small catalysts?

      Feb 24, 09 3:55 pm  · 

      tree city is an unqualified POS. it is an aspatial, perfected non-place. koolhaas' cruel joke on the nice canadians. om ungers did much smarter things in berlin decades ago.

      Feb 24, 09 6:12 pm  · 

      A month ago, a developer comes to us and wants to design a community for young creative thinkers , in the middle of 3 universities. Sounds cool. The process that ensued was cool until the developer kept manipulating our buildings' design so that they were malls again. Eventually the developer freed us from any 'design liability' in the selection of large floor plates, and we ended up with a half hearted attempt at filling GFA into some boxes.

      We did make a small sustainability contribution... but ..I was also disappointed in the politics that also went on between the Urban Design leader and the Developer... it was too...much just doing what the developer says.

      I thought urban design in the office would be different.

      Turns out my interest in Urban Design was mistaken for an interest in interconnected systems. This , I have decided, I can pursue in terms of "Energy" and will take a second degree not in urban design, but in sustainabiilty---where you have the opportunity to contribute and suggest things at all levels.

      Feb 25, 09 6:04 am  · 

      urban design is certainly a less defined discipline than architecture or landscape architecture, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist - maybe that it has even more potential. urban design happens, either intentionally or not.

      after 12 yrs out working - 9 of them at a single office that had multiple projects on our 'main street', i began to see that we had approached each as an individual project but that, after a while, they begin to add up to something. and with us involved in so many of them, i felt strongly that WE should have some opinion or intention about what they were adding up to. or else it was just a row of things sitting next to each other.

      this is why i went back to grad school to focus on issues of urban design. my masters project was centered around just this area of our main street - so i could get my arms around the issues that had become impt to me over those several years and i could begin to figure out how one could build on them.

      will i redesign main street? no. will i directly appy what i learned about urban design to that exact place? no. but i now have a fuller understanding of the various pressures, public perceptions, stakeholders, etc that affect how seemingly ad hoc 'design' happens.

      and i know that it's not accidental. results are just not as quick or direct as you might want - the origins of change and the catalysts might be unexpected and ideas about urban design generated for one place might show up in another. any single project may not come to fruition unadulterated - in fact multiple projects tend to ooze together if urban integration is happening successfully. (it's likely any one designer's urban vision, if realized as an intact vision, will fail because it isn't embedded enough.)

      it's not a waste of time. it's potentially something you'll spend your life trying to understand better.

      Feb 25, 09 7:32 am  · 

      Well, most of the examples you brought up are more related to urban planning than they are to urban design.

      In my experience of researching various schools coursework, I have stumbled onto the idea that urban planning from an architecture school works different from urban planning that comes from public administration viewpoint.

      Steven Ward hit it on the nose-- very few, if any, public spaces are pure incidental. Anything that involves physical objects is often intentional because it costs money. Through trial and error, a lot of places have improved themselves tremendously but that still points to incidence instead of coincidence.

      Urban design is typically the objects in and arrangement of surface spaces. There's lots of tiny little urban design principles that work well like how elevation affects movement and the concept of microclimates.

      But one fallacy of urban design that you learn from planning is that even the best urban design can go unnoticed or unused if there's a cultural precedence. Typically in the South, public spaces aren't used. The reason? It's complicate but my personal view is a lot of public space usage has been barred due to cultural implications. Jim crow laws, reconstruction, institutionalized segregation, perception of the city (in cultural and religious contexts) are fundamental keys in understanding planning and personal taste in modern America. Few people will believe or understand the complexity of the issue but it affects society deeply. All of these individual things are a strong indication of why suburbanism unfolded the way that it did and how cities are still being used.

      Feb 25, 09 5:19 pm  · 

      In regard to earlier comments about "pills of Jane Jacobs", my theory teacher Sylvia Lavin said in class recently something along the lines of "we should be careful of Jane Jacobs and anyone who claims to speak 'for the little guy'; the 'little guy' is to architectural discourse what Joe the Plumber was to recent political discourse" and that Soho was "saved" by Jane Jacobs only to be a massively expensive and "suffocating mall" today. I think she trashed Jane Jacobs as a way of saying that we shouldn't be afraid of dramatic urban planning gestures. Though lest we get too excited, she also shared the example of one of Shanghai's quaint-though-massive "world village" developments - in this case a German themed town planned (unbelievably) by Albert Speer, the son of the notorious head Nazi architect of the same name. Inspired to urban plan yet? Ha ha.

      Feb 26, 09 7:27 pm  · 

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