12/03/2010 § Leave a comment
I am becoming increasingly interested in the role that visualization of our built environment and our ability to read the constructed conditions has towards fruitful design and planning practice. (*the term “our” implies everyone’s – not just designers and those professionally concerned with the form and development of cities. The truth is, I believe such capabilities of “reading the city” could have even more deep and far reaching implications – and I hope in the future I will explore these further.)
What I mean by this is two-fold.
1. The ability to understand the functional aspects of an urban condition as tied to larger systems and networks. Signs embossed on the pavement of many cities begin to provide clues.
Yes, this storm grate covers a drain that carries storm water to the harbor, untreated:
And it is connected to the larger watercourses. On a horizontal plane – the river and the ocean, and on a vertical plane, to the groundwater, aquifer and the rainfall that (still / for the time being) replenishes the sources below ground.
2. The second value in Reading the City is the awareness that the city is continually changing. The city changes cyclically (like the seasons or immigration patterns) as well as along a somewhat linear path.
The political, social, cultural and economic factors that determine these changes are embedded in the fabric of the urban environment. The ways that people read these changes affect the image of a place. This image affects how areas grow and change. Immigrants to Los Angeles in the late19th century prioritized private space and believed that the detached single family house was the key to the good life. Los Angeles is now criticized for the resulting homogeneous landscape of detached single family homes. However, the urban condition resulted from a certain image. And even as major neighborhoods are becoming increasingly walkable, this image is hard to shake. Now, current trends reveal a longing for public space providing dynamic social interactions. This, in time, will become the new image of the city. The image is the built manifestation of social values. Cities are similar to (seemingly natural) landscapes in that they are both personal and collective:
Before it can ever be the repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock. ( Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory)
The ability to Read the City in this way parallels the often romanticized idea of reading the rural landscape as described by John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Ruskin among many others. While these are not new ideas, (having been applied to landscape, painting and other texts) it seems that the city remains an untapped resource.It too can be read as a text and function as a language to help us understand many facets of our culture through active engagement.
Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.
But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can
never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.
In numerous discussions, many agree that “space matters;” but, then, actual space is often left out of those very discussions. Arguments about affordable housing, environmental justice, downtown revitalization, sprawl, public space, built heritage and transit oriented development, to name a few, are often discussed with only a token nod to the concrete conditions on the ground. Many times images are used to highlight a polemic notion (such as with images of endless suburbia to “prove” its ubiquitous evilness) rather than to gain deeper knowledge regarding the discussion with careful interpretation of the visual material.
This is at first ironic considering how easy it is to put a picture to words with the ample free resources that allow us to visualize our worlds from plan view to aerial and even perspective. I wonder if perhaps words simply have cultural dominance over convening meaning due to their being the familiar mode of communication for the widest audience. (Indeed not everyone is knowledgeable enough in the visual forms of representation.) Another reason may be that words also seem less likely to be interpreted “incorrectly.” If the latter is the case, it in fact serves as an opportunity towards communicating with a tool that can have multiple and even contradictory meanings. (Words have this too, but it is often forgotten.) There, however, numerous attempts at communication; these often occur where people are likely to pass. For instance, with the following images:
The meanings derived from looking at the above images are probably as numerous as the observers. Speaking of which, there was a great Baldessari exhibit at LACMA when I took these photos, shown in the streetlight banner of one of the images.