27 July 2012

Exhibit Review: Aesthetics/Anesthetics at the Storefront for Art and Architecture

Storefront for Art and Architecture

The Aesthetics/Anesthetics Exhibit has been going on for the past month at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York.  I had the pleasure of stopping by a couple of weeks ago to see the 30 pieces, each by an architect or artist.  For those of you who haven't been to the Storefront for Art and Architecture it is a small, roughly 1000 square foot wedge shaped space that hosts numerous exhibitions related to architecture each year.  The most recent exhibit offers 30 different interpretations of the space you are occupying as you view them.  The works range from graphics showing how the space relates to its larger context of the city, the neighborhood, the block, and the building, to detailed drawings of the space itself.  A majority of the works are two dimensional while a few add some dimension with model like qualities, one jumps out of its frame as a stylized model of the gallery. 

According to the website (storefrontnews.org) the purpose of the exhibit is "to reflect on the performing properties of architectural drawings..."  I think it accomplishes this successfully.  Some of the works are literal in their interpretation of the space, including Revolving Storefront an elegant plan model of the space by Superpool, while others are more abstract like Andres Jaque's Storefront is a Livingroom in the Galaxy!! which is an illustration depicting the power of the storefront as a community resource, and Storefronts New York by VisionArc which is mostly text.  

This diversity forces you to think about the space more completely, not just as the actual space but its full context.  Where the exhibit is its most successful is in the fact that the subject of each drawing is the space you are in.  This gives the viewer the opportunity to observe each drawing and subject at the same time, a rare treat.  Not only does this offer a view into the artists mind and how they see space, context, or purpose, but it brings into focus aspects of the space you weren't aware of as you stand within it.  After visiting the exhibit I felt more tuned into my surrounding, afraid I was missing something right in front of my face.  I encourage you to see the exhibit while it is still open, until July 28, 2012.  If you don't get a chance to make it you can view the exhibit online and each of the pieces is being auctioned to benefit the Storefront. 

20 July 2012

Public/Private Space

Public Space

Of all the things considered when designing, whether architecture or city planning, among the most important are private and public space, and the transition between the two.  There are times when the need is obvious, private space in a residence for instance, and other times when it's more ambiguous, such as in the case of privately owned public spaces where who the "public" is can be widely interpreted.  The move between private and public spaces can also vary from a well defined boundary to a more loose transition.  These ambiguities are increasing especially in this time of increased connectivity.

Throughout history the outdoors has been considered the ultimate public space.  For millennia people have gathered outdoors for the most basic of activities from celebrations, sharing news, preparing and consuming food, and socializing.  Outdoor public spaces can take many forms, there are spaces that have been deliberately created for this function and others that have been adopted by the local population to serve this function.  In our time the manifestation of outdoor public space has largely included public parks and town squares but also includes the streets and paths that connect us.  These are the places that fill with people to commemorate an event, like the Fourth of July, join a parade, or start a protest.  When not used for this type of large scale function outdoor public spaces offer a place of recreation and relaxation.  People often use a public park as one would use a private yard; reading a book, having a picnic, talking with friends, or just enjoying the space.  Others have used the town square to sell their wares, provide entertainment, and practice their right to free speech. 

Public space is key to the health of a community.  While providing a place for the activities mentioned above they also contribute to public health by providing fresh air and a place to exercise.  Access to public space also provides the opportunity to be around other people.  Humans are social creatures and have a inherent need to interact.  An active public space can offer this interaction.  Jane Jacobs in her book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" spoke of the security active streets offer, illustrating how public spaces and the surrounding community have a symbiotic relationship.  The value of public spaces offer to individuals and the community as a whole is undeniable.

More recently the shopping mall has become a type of public space.  While offering areas for some of the activities mentioned above the fact that retail centers are technically private spaces means that we do not necessarily have the same rights as we would in a truly public space.  A discussion of the pros and cons of this is sure to be a lively one but isn't the subject here so we'll save it for another time. 

Complementing public space is, of course, private space.  As with public space there are many different scales of private space.  The private space of your personal bedroom is quite different than the private space of a corporate office.  Regardless of the level of privacy a private space it is typically smaller than a public space, if for nothing else than the fact of a lower occupancy.  Historically private space has been as small as a bed or as large as a castle.  Either way it offers security, safety, and a place to rest.  Activities that society, or an individual, has determined are not appropriate for public are carried out in private.  Our society values personal space, whether a child or an adult we all want our own space.  This may be a space used for work, hobbies, self reflection or to wind down.  The best part of private space is we can do whatever we want.  As like public space, the value of private space is clear.

We seem to be entering an age where these two types of spaces are overlapping and, in some instances, shifting.  With the increased connectivity of the world and the rise of social media more and more traditionally public activities are taking place in private spaces.  The news media highlighted the role social media played during the so called Arab Spring in the Middle East towards the end of 2010.  This specific example demonstrates an overlap of traditional public and private spaces; people organizing, from their private space, protests to be carried out in the public space.  Generally this use of technology illustrates how people with common interests and/or goals can be brought together without the benefit of proximity, I would consider this one of its primary advantages. 
This type of shift in the relationship between public and private space is illustrated in the fact that people often use their private spaces to communicate with the public using online public forums.  More often than not the groups organized online or through social media never meet in a public space, in fact many participants may never leave their private spaces.  I write this now in my home office, in a room all alone, definitely a private space.  Where I start to see this shift as a detriment is in the fact that everyday people are making "friends" without ever meeting, while in their private space.  While this may not be harmful in itself, increased connectivity may negatively impact our interaction with the public.  I'll admit, the interaction available with the use of technology can be productive it doesn't yet offer the nuance, spontaneity, or physicality of real life interaction.  In the worse cases people are substituting online communication for real life contact.  While this can be quite troubling I don't think it is common enough to be cause for concern.

Where the biggest risk lies is the reduction of our public spaces.  If large numbers of our community are filling up on conversation and interaction in virtual public spaces will they still have a need, or desire, for our physical public spaces?  From my own observations it appears that many people don't want to interact in public.  I understand we don't always want to be social but it seems when walking on the street or taking public transportation people used to talk to each other and now they have their heads buried in some sort of device, trying to avoid the fact that they are in a public space.  I wonder, is one of the core functions of public space, to bring people together, is starting to disappear?  If it is the blame cannot be put solely on technology, there are other factors, but I would argue it is the main factor. 

Technology has given us many reasons not to use public space.  It has increased private mobility with the automobile, allowing us to travel to distant places without ever having to interact with someone we don't choose.  We now have abundant at home entertainment with the television and video games so we don't need to leave the house to have fun.  When I was young outside was my entertainment, many children now stay in for theirs.  Often we don't even need to leave the house to go shopping.  In fact the rise of social media may be the most beneficial technology for public space, reminding us that sometimes we need to literally stand together as was seen during the Arab Spring. 

06 July 2012

Integrated Design.

If you are planning a construction project, whether it's a new office complex or a home addition there is a good chance you will not be the one doing the actual design or construction.  Sure you'll have input, it is your project after all, but you hire professionals because they have the expertise you lack.  The majority of construction projects follow the "design-bid-build" formula.  That is you hire an architect to design your building or addition, use the drawings to secure your building permit, solicit bids from a number of contractors, award the project, usually to the lowest bidder, and have it built.  Using this process each step is distinctly its own and there is very little, if any, interaction between the design and construction teams, both of which you hired.  You may in fact find that the architect and the contractor bad mouth each other.  If this is the case you run the risk that what was designed and what gets built may not quite align. 

With the design-bid-build process decisions are largely made based solely on cost.  A more holistic, some would say better, way of making these decisions is through integrated design.  Integrated design is just what it sounds like, integrated, joined together.  The entire project team, both design and construction teams, is assembled at the start and works together for the duration of the project.  That means you don't have a set of drawings to show a contractor before s/he's hired, you have to interview contractors and select one, not based on cost but on the value they bring to the table.  In this sense you are using similar criteria to hire a contractor that you would to hire an architect or other design professional. 

While the owner will be ultimate decision maker regarding the project s/he can make more informed decisions with input from the design and construction teams and set overall goals for the project in terms of scope, performance, and cost.  By facilitating a dialog between the design and construction teams early in the project each team member is able to share their thoughts and concerns on how to reach those goals.  The construction team will be able to assess how design decisions will affect construction and solutions to potential problems can be discussed while still in the design phase.  Additionally, the design team will be able to anticipate construction activities and adjust the design accordingly.  Everyone knows it's a lot easier, and cheaper, to change the design when it's still ink on paper than when they are brick and mortar. 

When the construction team is included in the design process they have a complete understanding of the design and there is buy-in.  The construction team, by being a part of the design phase and providing input on design decisions, has effectively endorsed the design.  After taking part in this process the construction team will work its hardest to ensure a successful project.  Additionally, by being a part of the design phase the construction team will be able to more accurately price the job.  Thorough discussions on how design decisions affect construction should lead to a full understanding of the project.  This should reduce the amount of change orders and help keep the project on schedule meaning the owner can be more confidant in the prices submitted by the construction team. 

Each phase of the project will move more smoothly with continued communication.  When construction starts the construction team will have an intimate knowledge of the design and will know the reasoning behind each decision.  If additional changes are required in the field it is important that the entire team understand the full implication of all decisions, which is more likely with integrated design.  By discussing all issues that arise after the start of construction with the entire team solutions can be reached that everyone agrees with and will help meet the projects goals.    

With a full understanding the design throughout the project, continued communication, and collective problem solving the project team should be able to deliver a building that all those involved are proud of.   By making decisions based on value, not cost, and with the entire project team, the final result of integrated design is a quality building that meets the owners goals while working towards a better way of building.