09 February 2008

"But I have promises to keep....and miles to go before I sleep....and miles to go before I sleep"

30 minutes starting now…

…Tick tock, tick tock…

Should you be so inclined to journey to middle America and pay me a visit in Bartlesville – the directions are simple: From I-44 in Tulsa, hook north to Highway 75 and it’s a straight shot for 30 miles. When you see the Microtel Hotel on the right hand side you’ve entered the outskirts; Hang a right at the gas station (to Highway 60) across from the Sonic if you want to stop by my house; If you have some time, turn left just past the K-Mart for damn near the best BBQ in the state; and if you’ve passed the Ford dealership across from the plumbing supply then you’ve already left Bartlesville – and two hours later, you’ll probably forget you’ve even came (unless, of course, you stopped for the BBQ). This is an all too common trend throughout Oklahoma (and arguably many other small communities across the nation) – they have become placeless drive-thrus with no individual character or discernible characteristics, save for their downtown areas. And if these downtown areas are indeed the heart, soul, and history of these communities – mine in particular – shouldn’t we do all in our power to protect, preserve, and most importantly promote this historical lifeblood?

….tick tock, tick tock….

The downtown are of Bartlesville is on the verge of becoming a ghost town – a shell of its former self. As growth of the town continued, auto freedom increased, and transportation patterns evolved the downtown became less a center of social, economic, and entertainment. Business and services followed the growth to the outskirts and residents had less need for downtown thus the cycle perpetuated itself. I contend that to maintain the spirit of place and maintain (or cling to?) the history of my town, the downtown needs to become a destination place once again, for its current residents, my friends as they pass through, and for future residents not yet on this Earth.

…tick tock, tick tock…

There are numerous case studies published analyzing various methods that similar sized small towns have, to varying degrees of success, enabled exactly what I’m proposing. A curious trend I’m noting, however, in analysis of these case studies are their seemingly contradictory information as to what works and what doesn’t work. If brilliant planner A says “X emphatically works, but Y is just a silly notion”, then conversely brilliant planner B methodically details how “Y is the answer, and X never works”, how then am I to synthesize that?

…tick tock, tick tock…

I propose then, rather surprisingly to myself even, that it isn’t the downtown area itself that needs correcting – all of the pieces for a successful downtown are already in place, and nothing I can inject there can realistically affect any change. The answer, rather, lies in rethinking our entire concept of town and development, of auto-mobility, of cluster zoning, of setbacks, of parking, and the creation of destination centers. In order to revive the downtown back to its glory of bustling activity – of people lined streets, with variety of goods, services, and entertainment within a ½ to 1 mile zone – we must inject that model throughout the entire community. The downtown cannot be successful as a single stand alone anomaly anymore, we have evolved too far from that model. However, if the preservation and promotion of old downtown is indeed a noble cause, then we must step back, reset our thinking, and look at what got us to this point.

…times up….

Edit: With a mere 2 weeks and 2 days yet to go, and the seemingly insurmountable pile of deadlines staring us all in the face - I thought I'd link this up from YouTube for a bit of inspiration.

My favorite scene, from one of my favorite movies "Any Given Sunday"

Warning - There are a couple F-bombs in here - after all it is Pacino. But I encourage everyone to take 4 minutes and 32 seconds from their lives and give it a watch.

Dedicated to each of you who have made this an truly unforgettable experience....and Herb you are my Coach D'Amato

Pacino Peace by Inches Speech

05 February 2008

26 January 2008

Well said, Maggie

During my stumbling around doing research for my HTC paper, I ran across the following that I think helps sum up some of the things we've been discussing on the blogs, post intensive:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

So, who's in?

Edit: I suck. Nick beat me to the punch nearly 5 days prior. Credit goes to Mr. Graal!

21 January 2008

Lions and Tigers and Bears! Oh my!

So after an incredible blur of nine of some of the most amazing days of my life, a click of the ruby red slippers lands me a state south of Kansas and I am home again. Words simply cannot express the emotion I had, the amazing friends I made, the vigor of a revitalized sense of purpose, and the swimming confusion in my head trying to piece together what all of this means. I am a better man for having met Herb Childress - without a doubt- and conversely I almost wish I had paid no attention to the man behind the curtain. It seems to be the common thread - where do we go from here?

Maybe now is not the time to figure that all out, and maybe it's too large for me alone to tackle, but maybe we can all work with each other to figure this mess out together. I miss my lions; I miss my tinmen; and I miss my scarecrow.

The topic I have settled on is a study as to whether it is economically or even socially viable for my town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma to attempt to revitalize, reclaim, and reinvigorate it's decaying and sleepy downtown area to once again be a destination spot - a place to see and be seen, and one that the citizens choose first as their spot for an evening on the town.

Abridged Bartesville history: Like most Oklahoma towns founded at the turn of the 20th Century the city's development has its roots in the oil industry. Once a fertile area for oil drilling, Phillips Petroleum was founded in Bartlesville and had its headquarters here until relocating to Houston in 2002. The subsequent cut in the Phillips presence from some 9000 jobs to 2400 crippled the downtown economy, and the rising development of big box retailers and strip centers away from the downtown area only perpetuated the problem. The current downtown is merely a shell of its former self, with a non-existent nightlife and only a handful of retailers and restaurants even bothering to open on the weekend. There is still a fairly captive audience of the existing Phillips employees, as well as the hub of the city and county government, and several other employers still located in the area, so foot traffic is not lacking - at least for a town of pop. 35,000.

The study could take several approaches:

A. What could be designed or transplanted to spark revitalization? I don't believe the pedestrian shopping mall is the answer as the evolution of shopping has evolved so dramatically and the town is so automobile dependent that this would not be a viable option. We love our high school sports here - would it be viable to move the football and basketball stadium away from the school to this area?

B. Is there a built-in employee incentive for Phillips and other large employers to invest in amenities to provide activities for its employees?

C. Is the whole model of "downtown" an outdated piece of nostalgia that simply doesn't fit in the 21st century? Should this entire strip of 1.5 miles be bulldozed and rethought out entirely? Is the infrastructure of the area worth maintaining if it only has an 8am to 5pm life cycle? Should entire sections of the streets be closed off to allow pedestrians to take it over in a European model?

I managed to obtain several case studies of small towns that have successfully done just what I am proposing, so it certainly can be done, but whether it can be replicated in my community requires investigation. In the end, my gut tells me all answers are going to lead to 'C' - which will be an eye opening study to all the powers that be, myself included who would loathe to see these historic structures abandoned because a solution cannot be found.

Help me save my town......

07 January 2008

Let's talk Duncan...

If that wasn't the best case of "I told you so" I've seen in a long time, then I don't know what is. I'm not sure if it was by design, but if so "BRAVO" Herb!

I started squirming a bit uncomfortably in my chair when I hit the description of Duncan's Alpha landscape, then the annoying twitch in my eye after seeing the Beta description, but the kicker was Table II "Social Groups and Landscape" and at that moment I knew I had been had. Over the last 5 days the majority of us - with me perhaps being the biggest perpetrator - derided Bickford's primary thesis as virtual hogwash that had little substance to back it up. Duncan, ladies and gentlemen, is what I refer to as substance. Accept it or not, he has made a pretty compelling case for what Bickford outlined - and even though Duncan's paper is some 25 years old, I can apply a modified Alpha/Beta description to even my sleepy little town without much stretch. The tables of the social group breakdown are laugh out loud funny in their applicability.

The Duncan research is incredible and the links he makes to the landscapes are spot on. I will certainly be looking for more of his papers to read and will probably be finding myself nodding in agreement again.

All for now - I have to go write an apology to Susan Bickford.

05 January 2008

Saving the world with architecture

One of my love/hate relationships with this profession is the seeming inability to be able to "turn off" thoughts on architecture when the work day is done. We've all probably heard the illustration that when we as architects, designers, and theorist get our vacation photos developed we are always surprised to find 4 rolls of film of buildings and details, and a sum total of 3 shots of our family. During dinner at an upscale restaurant, I find myself enumerating to my wife the laundry list of ADA violations I just counted in the bathroom. A sidenote to all of the men: do not attempt this during dinner on your wedding anniversary - trust me on this one, guys. So here I found myself at nine on a Saturday morning, unable to turn Bickford off in my head. I think somewhere in Chapel Hill I hear her laughing at me. So lets then examine Herb's next question: what can we as designers do to affect social change?

Let's start with an easy one, a small step for man if you will. I'm going to borrow something from Herb's blog that has struck a chord with me. To paraphrase: buildings should be helpful and fair. I think if we can address that issue each and every time we design we can - dare I say it - make a real difference. Within the discussion one someone's blog a few days ago, Herb suggested that architects have a responsibility to not only address the client's needs, but to really understand human behavior and analyze how we actually use a space and in the end, we create better spaces. I think we can all identify with the client who comes to us with their specific program - X rooms needs to be Y s.f.; 1 needs to be next to 2; delta needs to have her own bathroom, but gamma and theta don't rank that high - and then we just fit the rest in where we can. The extra handicapped restroom required through our code research is tacked on at a corner, as is the separate means of egress the plans examiner requires, and the result is many times a frustrating space for the end user. How might it be different if we use tools of psychology and real user needs studies to enhance the space from the onset of design? In the end I'll argue a much more helpful and fair space for all. We can even expand this to the scale of the site and its context. Rather than calculating how big of a building can we fit on the site and still have the required parking, what if we go back to the seemingly lost concepts of analyzing not only the building for the client's needs, but in the context of the larger neighborhood and its impact? It is a tough sell at times but one I think worthy.

I don't discount Bickford's argument that through the proliferation of suburbia the damage is done. But what can we do to handle the mess we have? Can we take pieces from days gone yore - pieces that worked then - and apply them to our current mode of development? Neighborhoods breed avoidance and separation through because of the lack of disconnect. Gone are the city streets where the social gathering spot was the stoop in front of the buildings, or the inviting front porches where I may join my neighbor for an afternoon iced tea as we watch our children bike down the street. Now we may nod to our neighbors as we pass them taking the trash out, or talk to them once a year when we need to borrow their chainsaw. Our definition of community has shifted to those we deal with in our professional lives miles away, and not who we share our streets with. The private realm of our houses are needed, but we have lost the public spaces to share. Good fences don't make good neighbors. We need to consider how to layer this shared public claim back into our neighborhoods and the active front porch is a great start. My dorm in college, although not the hallmark of good design, effectively captured this through a series of increasing larger public lounges. Each wing shared a small lounge for gathering of six or seven dorm rooms, then each floor shared a larger collective lounge and finally the first floor had the largest space to accommodate all the residences and a connection to the outdoors. It fostered a wonderful sense of community - of all ethnicities and classes - through a series of increasingly larger collective spaces, and yet still maintained the "safety" of the individual. These public spaces become more and more scarce congruent with more and more development and less and less real estate available. Let's appreciate these spaces again, and expound their values to our clients.

The last item I'd like to touch our are spaces that create and foster a shared experience of emotion. I'll be touching on these with our studio assignment in Enno's class, but in a nut shell there exist spaces and architecture that generate a shared emotion that cuts across all socio and economic boundaries, and that is what I call the "memorial space" The memorial to the OKC bombing victims at the site of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building is located in the heart of downtown Oklahoma City, surround by a redeveloped downtown of bars, restaurants, retail, and the convention center, as well as some of Bickford's fear generating classes. Through my observations, the experience of the memorial creates a solemnity and reflection that everyone, regardless of their connection to the bombing itself, shares. The spaces manages to strip us away to virtually our souls and we are all connected in grief, sorrow, praise and respect as we experience it. I have found the Vietnam memorial in D.C. to generate a similar feeling, and I suspect the WOTC memorial upon its completion will do the same. Perhaps we can learn from these somber memorials and understand what it is about the spaces that disregards class, race, gender, and age to make us all experience them equally.

When I tell the tale of my career choice to my friends and relatives I always start the story the same way, and tell me if this sounds familiar: throughout my entire, idealized undergraduate education my classmates and I all knew that upon our graduation and entrance into the work force that it was WE who were going to make a difference. We all had hopes and dreams that we were going to save the world with architecture. Five years of redlines, door jamb details, finish schedules until our eyes bleed, and countless EIFS over metal building panels later, that hope seems to have quietly left me for the more fertile minds of the next class of undergraduate students. Does Dr. Childress dare suggest that this hope may be still alive and within my reach? Maybe, just maybe it is.

03 January 2008

Reaction to Susan Bickford's "Constructing Inequality"

Quoth the preeminent philosopher Homer J. Simpson: "...I agree with you in theory. In theory communism works. In theory..."

Bickford's essay is dense, sweeping, provocative, radical, and at many times seemingly anachronistic. I found myself more than once referring back to the first page to verify the actual date of publication. Her philosophy, while profound, seems horribly out of date. Had this essay been written in the late 60's, I perhaps could appreciate her thesis better.

The central crux of her argument seems to be that the proliferation of suburbia and the construction of "gates" have radically diminished diversity and distorted middle and upper classes' views of community and citizenship. One could surmise that as these suburban "gates" increase - and no doubt they have in the last 15 years - then race relations should equally decay. Certainly we haven't achieved ideal racial (ethic and social) harmony, but clearly we have made advances evident even in our relatively brief lives. Although her sources are meticulously footnoted, some of the quotes utterly astound me - "whites continue to have a very low tolerance for the residential presence of African Americans". Perhaps its generational, perhaps its mine own values, but I find that statement extremely difficult to digest. And curiously I type this just as the news wire reports Iowa voters - not exactly the poster of ethnic diversity, with no disrespect to our good friends in the Hawkeye state - overwhelmingly supported Obama.

Bickford's concept of the "gate" is an interesting one, however, and certainly warrants examination of ourselves both as citizens and as curators of the built environment. While some of her examples are seemingly absurd to me - the mall security illustration for example: I can accept her argument that black and latino teenagers may feel ill at ease, but "elderly women of all races"? - her arguments about the nature of truly public space strikes a chord. Being a member of the so-called "super majority", that is a caucasion, middle-class male, I find it difficult to experience what radically different citizen may experience. Never have I felt insecure about an increased police presence patrolling my nieghborhood or swiping my ID card as I enter my office building, but I can perhaps imagine these as detriments in some cases.

The notion of gentrification is a curious paradox. I accept her argument that the school districts often times are one of the clearest lines of demarcation and support this notion of "gates". Yet the primary method to better a school district is through increased revenue through ... property taxes. What then is Bickford's solution to increasing funds if not through redevelopment? Again, I accept her argument that gentrification is often times destructive to a city's character, but she leaves me without a solution.

Lastly I'd like to touch on her intentional double entendre of the idea of "zoning out". Her thesis implies - and cetainly Jane Jacobs' - that the concept of zoning out, that is restricting or "engineering" an idealized pattern for the built environment is not so much of a good thing. She derides PUDS, CIDS, CC&R's and perhaps a couple other nefarious initials, rather categorically. I agree with her in part - some are silly, somewhat exclusionary, and frustrating - but I don't support the notion that these are entirely evil. The immediate image of the planned community of Seaside, Florida comes to mind. While I have never visited, I consider this from my studies to be a hallmark of idealized design. I'm curious how far Bickford is willing to accept the disolution of the concept of zoning. Would she be ok with a smattering of strip clubs or perhaps a rendering plant next to her residence? Obviously I exaggerate for the sake of hyperbole, but there is a place for zoning and restrictions.

To summarize, I think Susan Bickford makes some compelling arguments that in the end are just that - arguments without the concern for a solution, and arguments which may be 50 years out of time.