Friday, December 17, 2010

"Imagineering and the Creation of Space" by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect.

A number of urban theorists have raised a core question regarding the determinants of urban form, urban planning and design. Most notable question the assumption that rational decision making by professionals would continue to be the method of designing urban spaces! Rather theorists propose that urban form could become just another commodity, a product to be consumed--- if not produced for profit. Or perhaps, as illustrated in God’s Own Junk Yard, our urban environment may become just a by-product, or worse still the residual flotsam of the production and consumption process?

The Power of Design

In Delirious New York, Koolhaus substantiates the formative role of “business” and “the market” in shaping large projects. No one really doubts that capitalism is the formative catalyst in molding its own artifacts, and in guiding the plans of “people’s governments,” as well. But capitalism goes beyond just profits…it is about ruling and about the “practice of power.” Capitalism is more than just making an efficient factory, or a profitable office building; it surpasses inventions, copyrights, packaging, marketing, sales and profits. It is about images that express decision-makers’ roles, and their domains of power! The idea of Chrysler, the idea of The Bank of China and the idea of Rockefeller are as much about imagery as anything else. Without an image, aggressive competitors would well have swallowed up these entities long ago. The same is true of nation-states. In international politics and multinational business, alike, there is a thin line between survival and successful imagery.

I propose we extend the argument into the realm of domains of power and how governments, corporations and other large institutions use urban spaces and urban places to temper their domains of power.

Autonomy and the Size-Hierarchy Scale

There is another issue of the self determination of urban designers that needs to be addressed here. The issue of artistic autonomy has been brought to question. While the “great man theory”, according to postmodernists may belong in the trash heap of history, there lingers as issue of the role of articulate and considered decision making by professional teams and their integrity in a process. Corporate imagineering, the deployment of virtual reality…. versus the creation of genuine expressions…. has been muted as an integrated issue. I would like to propose that the larger the artifact being designed, the less would be the autonomy, or the singular role, of any one “creator.” For that matter, even the autonomy of any major professional design team would reduce in proportion to the size, and scale, of any artifact being created. Opposed to this is transforming designed experiences into “branding experiences”, devoid of human scale, proportion and cultural content.

I feel Team Ten was exploring this dilemma way back in the 1960s, and that they were saying, “If no one is going to be responsible, if no one is going to be the designer, then it would only be through the creation of a value system, with related principles, that we can get quality out of large, urban infrastructure projects.”

Much of their work was in the form of experiments with smaller projects that would generate these principles. Aldo Van Eyk’s parks, his orphanage, and the Free University by Candilis Josic and Woods come to mind as significant experiments in this direction. There was also a concern that “methods,” the ‘international style” and other cookbook schools of thought were devoid of the kind of value base and lyrical expressions that urban fabric requires.

At the smaller end of this size-hierarchy scale, an individual can still design coffee cups, chairs and houses. The issues arise in the design of larger slices of urban fabric. While an artist can design his own chair, or make a sculpture, s/he cannot compose a town! This size-hierarchy scale seems to make eminent good sense, because a town design impinges on more people than a chair, and there are more technology options that will affect the lives and consumption patterns of thousands of households, enterprises and individuals in a town. On the other hand, the likes of General Motors should not become the “artists” either, effectively lobbying governments on the kinds of subsidies to be placed on energy, transport modes, roads and urban layouts!

What is disturbing is when a convergence begins to appear between thinking trends, corporate interests, and political naivety. The American creed of The New Urbanism, like the creed of CIAM, carries with it the danger of cookbook rules for urban design. Even Smart Growth, while reaching back to the panacea of formulae, labels non-believers as “libertarian.” In case you do not know, in Americaneese, that’s a bad word for individualism, conservatism in the sense of advocating individual freedom, over the common good. There is indeed a deeper issue here which urban designers and planners must address. Is autonomy what we are really looking for in the design process? Alternatively, are we not looking for design that responds to some kind of social and contextual contract; responds to principles and ways of thinking, but not to rules!

Anything Goes! Ugliness Can Be Pop Art!

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown began to look at urban landscapes in much the same spirit that Andy Warhol looked at cans of tomato soup…as a form of pop art, or relevant cultural expression. A “Coke can” is, no doubt, an important part of the popular iconography. But we cannot call it “popular art” either! The 1960s protest symbol, the raised fist, is “popular art.” Unlike people’s art, we are getting flooded with corporate, common images, which are thrust on the popular imagination. Times Square is a gross example of this, but it is happening in less obvious ways, in every setting. I have always had a deep, intuitive sense of doubt about Warhol, Brown and Venturi. In their desire to be catchy…to grab the public eye… they were dignifying ugliness, aligning themselves with a way of thinking---!

Koolhaus’s barons of New York City wanted their mega projects to act as icons of their family’s names and prestige---while profiting simultaneously! But this was more in the spirit of Renaissance patronage for self-aggrandizement, than advertising products or making spaces into products or mundane branding experiences!

Walt Disney Incorporated was, and is, on a very different path. It has designed several ‘brand name,’ spatial products…each having its own market niche and commercial value, which is packaged and marketed with great success. They each sell under names we all know, ranging from Mickey Mouse to the Pirates of the Caribbean. Recently the Disney Company has opened a real estate division that has moved “imagineering” off of the film sets and into the streets---the New Urbanism market place. The Millennium Township, near Disneyland in Orlando, is their first product. While Levitt Town’s were in the same genre---packaging the American Dream into an affordable commodity---the Millennium project rests more on imagery than on mere functional factors like good location and affordability. Studies like the Taste Makers and the Levittowners explored the use of ‘packaging’ and marketing to create consumer products out of urban fabric. Our concern here is, thus, a long-standing one.

Given that urban design and city-planning fall on the “large end” of the hierarchy of autonomy in art, it is clear that few individuals will sit alone and compose large-scale urban scenarios. What are the alternatives to corporate domination and its commercial iconography?

*. Participatory design;
*. Indigenous accretion;
*. Professional planning, and value based design teams, and/or;
*. And, still the individual visionaries.
All four are becoming ever more illusive propositions. Most likely a combination of these alternatives, would be employed by large corporate, or government entities.

How Spaces Use People

In fact, it is not so much the process of space creation, as the way the spaces are used, which should really matter. In this sense we should be more concerned with ‘conception’ than production. Or, conversely, how spaces use people should be a concern to us! Do we conceive this at the outset? Disney creates the spaces, the characters and the storyline. Disney begins with terms of reference, performance standards and a clear brief on the product elements and characteristics, with a clear focus on the targeted consumers. In fact the consumers and what the product must DO TO THEM, is the core of the brief. There is something here to be learned from corporate animations! As designers we must know what our compositions are doing, how they move people, how they play with emotions and experiences. What is objectionable though is that the Disney design method rejects context completely. If a lake is needed machines are brought in and one is made. If a lake is in the way it is filled! In a similar way people are conceptualized and made into the set characters. While the project makes the same claims of higher density, footpaths and common open spaces that most New Urbanism communities do, one questions the kinds in social interaction that may emerge. The high costs, isolation from work places and limited housing design types lead one to conclude that the community will be one for older, well-to-do Anglo Saxons! The Millennium project raises numerous social issues about heterogeneity, about occupational and job opportunities and about variety in communities. It is a product, not a community!

Some spaces are convivial and catalyze social interaction. They make interaction happen! Some spaces temper one’s curiosity and direct one’s interest. Other spaces respond to the need for variety and diversity. A spatial system can “set up” sequences of events and experiences which challenge the users spatial intellect. As an urban designer, one can create ‘hang out nooks,’ stairs to sit and sun oneself on, corners to hide in with a friend, and low walls to sit on and talk things out. A courtyard can be an empty, dull shell, or a lively outdoor cafĂ©. There can be a sidewalk, and then there can be a sheltered arcade, with interesting little vendor stalls? Some spaces are of human scale, making one feel a part of the ambiance. Others are monumental and tell us of our insignificance! They are so scaled out that one is offended! Or, they are “gray areas,” which are devoid of any character or quality, and are abusive to the human spirit.

Many urban spaces are bland, colorless and have no textures. There is a message of neglect in these artifacts. They speak of an authoritarian attitude of governance toward citizens. I am reminded of a photograph in The Natural House labeled “Find the Citizen?” It is an aerial image of East Side of Manhattan through the bellowing exhaust of a thermo power plant.

Is Quality Measurable?

What should disturb us, as urbanists, is the quality of life being generated, and the scales on which we are able to conceptualize ‘quality.’ Kevin Lynch taught us that cities have several aspects, or elements, which can be enriched to improve the quality of urban places. He noted landmarks, boundaries and districts, amongst others. Lynch proposed that good urban fabric is not homogenous; it is varied and articulated. In The Image of the City he emphasized boundaries and landmarks, which give further articulation and meaning to urban places. An urban core can have its own unique edge, can have distinctive entries and can sponsor movement through a network of walkways and paths. Small parks, gardens and courtyards can further accentuate these experiences. Exploring an urban core can be an Odyssey through places, challenging ones’ senses, demanding one move further and deeper into unknown domains and precincts. Laying out such a scenario is no less than conceptualizing the cinematography of a film. We are designing experiences! There are urban elements, urban components and urban relationships, amongst and between them, which generate urban systems. It is essential that we identify these parts, analyze them in terms of how they ‘work’ on us, and assess how we feel and how we think they should be used.

There are also systems of ‘architectural values’ that are used and abused (contextual relevance, honest expression of materials; human scale; building modules based on anthropometrical dimensions and production sizes; graphic proportions, etc.). All of these factors come to one’s mind when lamenting the banality of the new urban forms emerging. These forms are more concerned with “appearances”, with skin, with packaging, than with any of the concerns and values I have noted above. While we should be moving into the four dimensional world of experience, such forms move us back into the two dimensions of graphics.

Most important are the unplanned, serendipity and pleasant human interactions which are facilitated and enriched by catalytic urban spaces: A chance meeting; eye to eye flirting; boy meets girl; and boy meets boy! Good urban fabric leaves the parks and the boulevards open for all to walk upon, hawk upon and play upon.

Images As Antidotes

America becomes a focus of thought, because it has a narrow vocabulary of traditional patterns from which to evolve new forms. There have been a plethora of books on American barns; on highway hoardings; on shopping centers; on massive industrial complexes… all with the intent of proving that there is, indeed, an American urban tradition that we can learn from. While such studies are popular American doctoral thesis topics, they exhibit little virtuosity in the form of defining an urban language. The repertoire is a very limited one to draw on! It raises the question, is Learning From Las Vegas possible? While bland America provides, so to speak, a ‘clean slate’ to work on, the reality is a milieu of “sameness,” or at best the trivia of endlessly repeated Disneyland imagery. The New Urbanism is a remake of the Leavitt Towns of Long Island. We’ve added sidewalks, Victorian gingerbread motifs, and front porches and then declared that a kind of miraculous ‘smart urbanism’ has resulted! Indeed the sameness, the trivia and the banality of the Leavitt Towns is more hurtful, because they are surely the tradition. Disney knew well the boredom of his compatriots, as well as their lack of exposure to varieties of experience. He provided an antidote of sorts, in the form of packaged milieus, each with its own contrived traditions and fantasized geographical settings, which were then effectively marketed as themes! The problem here lies within a kind of reality wrap; a large and influential society began to gain its intellectual and emotional stimulation from fantasy and escape. Substance began to fade away and wither into a new virtual reality, created and produced by corporations.

One laments, with a bit of nostalgia, that real places very much existed in America as recently as the early 1950’s, with there own styles, local dress mores, accents, and even food habits. There were places like Cross Creek in Florida that ate its own alligator soup, Key West where Hemmingway could escape to write, New Orleans with its own music and style, Cannery Row with its unique culture of poverty, Greenwich Village with real thinkers and painters. Even Faulkner’s hometown, Oxford Mississippi, has been transformed into a cartoon of the Deep South, a stylized hyper-image of itself. Any ambiance that had genuine qualities, or a unique character, was “made over” into a kind of hyper-reality of what the place once was in the public imagination, depleting its authenticity. These “made over” packages were then marketable---products for sale. Tourism became a vehicle to distribute these products to millions of consumers. These hyper-real settings provide relief to the real urban ambiance of Coca Cola signs, McDonald Arches, and curtain walled buildings.

If religion was the opiate of the masses in the Nineteenth Century, Walt Disney is the opiate of the masses today!


In such a milieu, it seems appropriate that most genuine architecture is in the form of new art museums! And most genuine art is found in those museums. Galleries, where something “new” can be seen, either sell high-end “art investments,” or trivial “arts and crafts” brick-a-bract. Again these are largely destinations for tourists, who are the consumers of these products. There was a time when people traveled, without any planned schedules or destinations. They were seekers---adventurers! In fact the entire concept of “tourism” has emerged from consumer societies over the past several decades. The key requirement of the new tourism is that “nothing should happen!” There should be nothing unexpected, unplanned or serendipity. The new tourism that is conceived and packaged, allows people to consume places! Tourists use expressions like “let’s DO SPAIN” next year. Having DONE SPAIN, they will have to “do” some place else the following year. Again, consumerism! Tours have been designed, packaged and produced so that the essential qualities of a traveler, an explorer, or god forbid, an adventurer, are methodically distilled from the product. All risks, all dilemmas, and all strange people have been removed. Tourists do not need ingenuity to solve problems, to mediate with people, or to just plain make friends. In fact they want to consume people, instead of meet them. They feel uncomfortable unless the native people are being paid by them to do something for them.

Tourism has become an analogue for urbanism. Variety, diversity, and experiences are to be removed. Nothing unplanned, nothing unforetold, in short---nothing new should happen!

Meaning Systems

Having thrown up that paradigm, I would now like to drift into my work in the Himalayas. Here we are planning a new capital city that is an over-lay on to an existing scenario. To describe that scenario fully would take thousands of words. So, instead I would like to explain to you what a prayer flag is! In a way it is an analogy to an urban design.

In its most simplistic form, a prayer flag is a form of votive offering. A very long strip of cloth is tied along a very tall pole! The color of the cloth signifies a mood. The mood may signify an event, like a death in a community, or the initiation of a new house, or the starting of a new season! It may just forebode of good will! If one looks closer at the cloth, there are characters hand painted or block printed on to it, which are in fact words, which lay out mantras. As the wind blows over these flags, it is believed that the mantras are endlessly let off in to the breeze, and that they float about over the city.

When one walks through Thimphu valley, along the Wangchhu’s clear streams, they are enclosed by verdant forests, which reach up the mountain walls from the river. There at the top, or better said, at the edge--- making a silhouette of the hills against the endless blue sky---one can make out a strange articulation. If one looks more closely, and analyses that edge, it is finely articulated by rows of large prayer flags, of varying heights and configurations, presiding over the city, letting off their favorable mantras!

So we have this image and there is also this hidden meaning. The city is being protected, enriched and empowered by this guardian wall of auspicious prayer flags!

There are other artifacts, with other meanings. There are mani walls, or prayer walls; there are prayer wheels; there are chortens with prayers inscribed within them; there are lakhangs, or temples, and there are monasteries full of monks. There are also gateways, which welcome visitors. There are decorative signs and symbols, which emanate good feelings. And there are prayer flags that preside over the Thimphu Valley and gather the geographic space into a “place.” Spaces are empty; places are full of meaning!

All of these artifacts---all of the meanings they communicate---charge the atmosphere with an aurora. The mutual understanding of this meaning system, and the sharing of its aurora, generates a deep form of conviviality.

These artifacts then, are kinds of mechanisms created to generate meanings. And these meanings are shared feelings and sentiments of the inhabitants. These meanings are the essence of their community.

So now there are the elements of “shared meanings,” and “conviviality” in place making.

Urban Verbs

Just as Kevin Lynch defined districts, boundaries, landmarks, etc. as the nouns of urban design, I would propose these meanings are the “verbs.” They begin to move feelings and sentiments in directions, just as static, immobile “nouns” in literature need verbs to “get things going.”

In this context decoration becomes important because different motifs become symbols of various intangible attributes: like “good luck.” By applying, what appear to be decoration, onto these components, additional meanings and emphasis is provided. Are these then not the adjectives and adverbs of urban design?

All of these signs, symbols and elements become a language, which “speaks” a knowledge system.

The “auspicious” is elemental to the Bhutanese knowledge system; just as the “rational” is elemental to our own Western systems of thought.

The Urban Uniform

New York City, the Cartesian grid, the ‘x’ and the ‘y’ axis, are all our tools for thinking. We Westerners are mental animals of paradigms; we tend to think of one thing versus another, of ’x’ versus ‘y.’ We like a world of good versus bad, of polar views. We feel very comfortable with questions which ask if there is a god or not, but the idea of their being multiple manifestations of something, or many aspects of an idea, is not a comfortable proposition. Part of this emerges from our written tradition, as opposed to verbal ones. The written tradition means we must be able to write things down, and that begins to mould how we think. For example there are thousands of Hindu gods! It is not really practical to write about several thousand gods---One with a few saints---that’s within the bounds of the written media. Verbal traditions are more expansive, flexible and imaginative. Pagnini, the two thousand aphorisms on language, was put to written form four hundred years after it was created. It was passed on over those years through root memory from teacher to student! Consider a mandala? It is a four dimensional diagram! It is a diagram of the universe, which describes matters in terms of mythological beings and places and relationships between places. Most important, every significant thing is a manifestation of something else; and has hundreds of forms of manifestations! These can be ‘avatars’ or accretions. And these are not mere forms of things, but interpretations of feelings, moods and attitudes.

The experience of ‘this life’ then is an adventure, that of a traveler, not of a tourist. Nothing is sure, or truly understood, or if it is--- it can be looked at in many different ways. Milind Kundera, in The Art of the Novel, opines that ‘uniforms’ possess the Western mind. He explores the possibility of a culture of ‘multiforms.’ He laments the fading of individual choice, the loss of the inner freedom; the absence of uniqueness! I feel we must address the same issue in urban planning and design. In another essay, Slowness, Kundera vents his anguish on the ‘hyper-experiencing’ that characterizes contemporary life. Everything is momentary, fleeting, at high speed; one image comes quickly over the other, like the nervous clicking from channel to channel, from website-to-website, while one is still bored even of the clicking itself! What is most disturbing about the emerging, consumer generated ambiance, is that it is a kind of media for a Cartesian, monosyllable kind of thinking. It is devoid of variety, of differences and of manifestations. It is fundamentalist in the worst sense! There is a subtle fascism in it all. Boredom is the least of its sins; mono-thinking, intolerance and a kind of mental blindness are the deeper states, which are causes for concern.

The Ethos of Urban Space

Image-makers are media makers, and we define and design the ‘ethos’ that control essential feelings. “Ethos,” according to Gregory Bateson who created the term, is the way a culture emotes about events and happenings. When Bateson derived this term he saw it as a tool to distinguish between cultures according to their defining elements. He knew that the way people felt about events and places, was the way they were---their essential culture.

Different spaces emote different behavior. In India visitors to Hindu temples, instinctively remove their footwear, regardless of their own religion. Entering a mosque will evoke hushed silence. While in a marriage shamiana there may be a lot of chitchatting. Places then emote signals, which request specific forms of behavior, let off an ambiance. Imagineering, no? A thread of history woven into everyday behavior,yes!

A Design Approach: The Differentiated Web

The basic concept of the Thimphu Plan is to create a network, or movement system, which separates pedestrians from vehicles, and which promotes movement. By movement, I do not mean movement for fun or pleasure---I mean movement that engenders social interaction! The concept is not so much a geographic one as a conceptual one. If there are “server and served” spaces, as in Kahn’s sense of things, then the web is a facilitator to various specialized modules of spaces that have to fit into the web---houses, shops, religious and institutional structures. We decided at the outset, to use the traditional building components of the Himalayas as a kind of “Logo Set” to play with. The Served Spaces, or Buildings, could be plugged into or “set-into” this network. We see the network as a “differentiated web.” One line of the web becomes a long corridor, or as Shadrach Woods would have said, a STEM. The stem runs parallel; along the riverbed and is so planned that over decades it can adapt to newer, and varied technology. Trunk infrastructure would also run along the corridor. The corridor will be differentiated by Nodes and by Hubs. The nods and hubs are points in the system that are in fact public transport stops, place of modal split, as well as the centers of various types of pedestrian precincts! The nature of these precincts are discussed below.


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