Rick Santorum recently declared that as a condition of statehood, English must be the primary language in Puerto Rico. I know how he feels. If I were president, I might dictate that English be the primary language of architects and urban planners.
Seattle is undergoing planning and "visioning" wherever you look, a way of keeping busy during the Great Recession, but also of preparing to meet the light at the end of the deep-bore tunnel. The waterfront is in the middle of re-conceptualization, sprawling South Lake Union is taking shape, the adjacent Denny Triangle is ripe for sprouting a new Amazon forest of towers amid what have been parking lots for half a century, and Seattle Center, looking at the Next50 on the anniversary of the fair, and has undertaken a competition for designers to re-imagine how the Memorial Stadium site and immediate surroundings could be remade as a modern civic space.
Yes, there's a whole lot of visioning, revisioning, and re-revisioning going on.
It's tough to get a handle on some of the ideas. One problem is concepts that look good from 30,000 or even 1,000 feet, but seem undefined at street level. Architects are now fond of using computer images that often turn schemes into abstractions that fail to give any feel for what's going to be on the ground. There are often too many cubes, domes, blocks, trapezoids, and lozenges: it's architecture as geometry class. Some architects have a brilliance for being able to see any two-dimensional rendering or blueprint as a fully formed 3-D space, but most of us don't. And creative shapes often get lost in translation. The Gates Foundation, for example, looks like two, cool boomerangs from the Space Needle, but down on the sidewalk, it just seems like another big office complex. Was it built to impress folks commuting by gyrocopter?
One yearns for the days of Victor Steinbruck's sketchbook (Seattle Cityscape, Market Sketchbook). Or old-fashioned dioramas, like the one Vulcan has used so effectively at South Lake Union. Architects and planners should turn the city into a doll house to give us a better feel for what they're thinking of at the people level. I've always loved that scale model of New York at the Queens Museum of Art in which every building in the city up into the 1990s has been replicated. I wish more architects still used models and paintings to capture their ideas.
I've looked at the plans for the downtown waterfront, and I still don't have an overall sense of how it would come together after its post-Viaduct transformation. I still can't quite envision the traffic volumes, or how waterfront ecosystem restoration will square with continued commercial and industrial uses.
And then there's that enormous proposed "fold" below the Pike Place Market which, despite its picturesque, pastoral name looks a whole lot like a concrete lid over a highway. Yes, you see happy images of computer-generated Seattleites frolicking in new waterfront public spaces, but even these carry an air of unreality: the sky is too blue, the vegetation isn't right (Ponderosa pines?), and what are people doing when it rains, or during the work day? The pictures make every day in Seattle seem like a sunny Bumbershoot. Come. On.
Like all big projects, the waterfront re-do suffers from goals that are far too general to mean much, and details that are far too small or undetermined to give us lay people specifics. So, after muddling through jargon and timelines, you're told that "the project will create an exciting destination with vibrant public and cultural spaces, access to the water and a new urban street that will accommodate all modes of travel...." It's English, but such goals leave a lot of latitude in their execution. It's English that doesn't say much.
At least it's not gobbledygook. There a problem when architects try to say too much in academia-infested code, like alchemists trying to convey their arcane processes and keep them secret at the same time.
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