Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Soul of the City

How does one measure the depth of civic engagement in a particular city? What metrics can we use to register the strength of conscience? How can the soul of the city be indexed?

BOTC has written before about the simple care of the city. By “simple care” we mean the neighborly awareness and recognition of other urban dwellers or users. The exhibition of simple care is most apparent during the winter when some landlords or owners make little or no attempt at removing snow and ice from city sidewalks. No snow removal reflects an obvious disregard or de-valuing of the city. Hence, snow removal is a simple metric of civic engagement.

Another more ritualized metric that can be utilized is the community parade. BOTC has always been interested in the community parade—not necessarily at the scale of Cleveland’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, but more on the scale of the community Memorial Day Parade. BOTC has documented several local Memorial Day parades and ceremonies over the years, including events in Bedford, Chagrin Falls, Parma Heights, and Parma.

The Memorial Day Parade, an American ritual that has its roots in the Civil War, is, if closely examined and witnessed, a poignant and touching exhibition of civic engagement and patriotism. Although the routines stay the same every years, the gathering of veterans’ groups, high school bands, boy and girl scouts, police and fire departments, assures the solemnity and importance of the annual procession. The young and the old march together, maintaining the generational passage of the sacred tradition of honoring the fallen. The grizzled veteran straightens at the playing of the National Anthem or weeps at the emotion of Taps, all in public view and in participation with others who have not served. Children hold little American flags and fidget during moments of respectful silence, beginning to understand the rituals that they will perform in later decades. They all honor citizens who sacrificed.

However, what happens if no one comes to the parade? What if very little people actually spend a half-hour of their holiday participating in—just merely watching, mind you--the Memorial Day Parade? This is what occurred in Parma yesterday. Parma is a city of, according to the US Census Bureau, around 80,000 people. Approximately 9,300 veterans live in the city, or about 14% of Parma’s population, more than average American city. Many houses fly Marine Corps and Navy flags. Blue Star Flags hang in many windows. Yet, how can so little people turn out for such a solemn occasion?

This lack of visible and tangible participation in one of the civic days of obligation is quite distressing. This is, in our estimation, a metric that portends negatively for the soul of the city, our city. Once an urbanism or suburbanism loses its pride and erodes into apathy, the core begins to rot and weakens, eventually withering away.

BOTC hopes what we witnessed is merely an anomaly.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Lecture worth a Damn

Cameron Sinclair performs God's work.

That is our reaction to Cameron's lecture last night at the Idea Center. The lecture, the last in the recent Talalay Lecture Series sponsored by MOCA Cleveland, was clearly the most interesting, potent, and relevant talk we have experienced in quite a while.

While many of us play within the esotericism of current architectural and urban thought, Sinclair and his organization Architecture for Humanity acts, facilitates, and builds hundreds of buildings around the world, influencing thousands of people on many continents. Sinclair truly builds for the masses, all by utilizing decentralized and open networks of emerging global architectural talent, instead of top-down master dictated central planning structures.

Although we live in a spikey world of innovation and creativity (see Richard Florida's recent book Who's Your City), we also live in a flat world (see Tom Friedman's The World is Flat) which allows the distribution of innovative architectural ideas through emerging digital networks. AFH takes advantage eager+willing+idealistic professionals and designers around the globe to solve problems that heavy + clunky international organizations and NGOs cannot. AFH's portfolio of work exhibits the agency that thoughtfully construed architecture can possess, facilitating the building of community, the dissemination of education, the easing of tension and strife, the enlightening of intellect, and the bolstering of local economies. All architects wish that we could create building which could have such a profound influence.

The question for us, in Cleveland, is what we can do to aid in AFH's vital mission of delivering sensitive and effective design solutions to populations who do not usually have access to architectural and engineering professionals. Sadly, we here in Cleveland do not necessarily have to look more than a few miles to perform work that can be immediately beneficial.

Bravo, Mr. Sinclair. Your work inspires and touches the soul.

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Slow response to a Slow Lecture

Carolyn Strauss, director of SlowLAB, a design think tank based in New York and Amsterdam, presented her work and thoughts to a small audience at the Idea Center on April 22. Her lecture was the second in the current Talalay Lecture Series “The New Face of Architecture” sponsored by the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).

Unfortunately for the audience, there was nothing really new about her ideas, thoughts, or work, or anything readily applicable to architectural generation. Rather the talk was purely anecdotal and catalogue-like, warm-and-fuzzy, and unsubstantial.

The crux of Strauss’s presentation centered on the idea of “the slow” or the concept of “slowness,” a so-called movement that searches to leach out the hidden textures, histories, and dynamics of a given space, artifact, infrastructure, setting, atmosphere, or event. The slowness notion, according to Strauss, can be traced back to the slow food movement, which sought the raise awareness of local cuisine and food production in specific regions of Italy. Supposedly this notion of the slow is transferrable to other creative disciplines, such as architecture and urban design. Strauss sought to make these connections between ideas of regional cuisine with ideas of recent installation art and urban mapping from around the world, often citing the work a confederation of designers, artists, cartographers, and geographers.

Yet very little of the work was architectural in the traditional sense. The work shown varied from the documentation of weeds and flowers embedded in walls or sidewalk cracks, installation projection art that simulated a tree shedding leaves, and a documentary focusing on the plight of an immigrant shoe repair shop and its owner. While singularly interesting and potentially potent, the exhibited work as a collection did not cohesively suggest a new paradigm of thought that could manifest in a slow architecture or slow urbanism.

Ultimately many in the audience recognized that the lecture was merely an index of catalogued resistant moments in our globalized economy and culture. This resistance is not really new, novel, or groundbreaking in thought or practice—similar resistance practices and thought can be found in many disciplines being executed around the world. The idea of resistance or critical resistance, again, is nothing new.

The notion of a slow resistance or merely slowness in architecture and urbanism is hardly novel. Firstly we can look to Marxist architectural historian Kenneth Frampton and his ever-evolving essay “Critical Regionalism” which exhibits the notion of global-resistive regionalism in architectural design. Slowness can be found in the delicate essays of David Leatherbarrow, a theorist who writes cogently about weathering, surfacing, and siting of architecture within specific environments. The slow can also be weaned from the writings of landscape historians such a JB Jackson (The Necessity of Ruins) and John Stilgoe (Outside Lies Magic). Although the above are authors and not designers, they do posit notions and provide potential constitutional foundations for slow design.

But that is not to say that slowness has not been made manifest through existing built work. Exhibitions of slowness can be found in the contemporary phenomenological architecture of Tod Williams + Bille Tsien, Juhani Pallasmaa, Steven Holl, Will Bruder, Rick Joy, Jacque Herzog + Pierre De Meuron, among many others. Much of the work of the great Alvar Aalto possesses a prediction towards the phenomenological and ruination, and therefore the slow. Whether or not identified taxonomically within the current milieu , slowness already does possess a pedigree within the cannon of 20th century modernism.

In conclusion we were disappointed in the lack of a rigorous process and annunciation of principal that such a doctrine can possess. The notion of slowness does possess merit and potential, even if its recent incarnation and presentation was rather shallow and directionless. Strauss should continue her work but recognize the movement’s hagiography and situate the antecedents that should strengthen the work.

As for MOCA’s selection of lecturers in this series, the museum is batting well below its average. Strauss’s talk was clearly weak. Although the Ball + Nogues lecture received only luke-warm praise, the duo’s built work and installations at least provided hope for a furtherance of thought. Let’s hope that Cameron Sinclair’s talk later this week provides an actual new face of architecture, not merely a simulacrum.