January 30, 2007

The Frontyard is the New Backyard: Los Angeles Undergoes Urban Rehabilitation

The ability to enjoy the sun and the great outdoors practically year round has been one of L.A.’s strongest selling points since it’s beginnings. Today, this acclaimed feature is being combated with the cities staggering rise in Angelinos, along with the subsequent congestion of transit and the decrease in available property. Southland locals simply do not have enough room to enjoy the fresh air they once did, that is, if we can indeed call the air “fresh” anymore due to atmospheric pollution caused largely by automobiles. It is clear to see the various impacts that the increase in population has on our daily experiences living within L.A. In an effort to counteract such urban problems, design professionals have collaborated with public leaders to strive for creative and effective solutions.

Los Angeles architecture, from its beginnings, has embraced the relationship between indoor and outdoor space. As seen in the case study house project of the 1950’s (pictured at right) as part of the Modern Movement in America, the backyard was viewed as an essential part of every Angelino’s home. As such, the Southern California lifestyle was fully realized; summers could be spent by the poolside, where neighborhood barbecues and simple games of hide-and-go-seek could be enjoyed.

One such avenue by which to solve Los Angeles’s need for public space is the creation of new urban parks. But many might wonder: if there is such a lack of outdoor space, where can we find room to fit new parks? The answer is double-edged. First, there is ample space, if you are willing to get in your car and drive; and second, there is enough space, if the city converts its unused government-owned land. Both of these concepts are at the forefront of the search for public area within the Los Angeles region.

However, it is debatable whether the local climate of Los Angeles, being mostly a desert, was ever able to sustain such a lifestyle. Is the lifestyle previously described the innovation of the Angelino, and in reality foreign to the local climate? The answer is complicated and not easily answered, however, despite the origin of the problems we are facing today, public leaders and design professionals remain committed to their efforts in achieving a balance between satisfying the values of our society as well as developing resolutions that are economically and environmentally sustainable. Looking at one of the cities largest public undertakings in the arena of new urban parks, it becomes surprisingly apparent how the proposed plan fails to respond to the cities economic and environmental constraints.

Landscape artist Ken Smith (pictured at left) has won the design competition for the 1,347-acre park, to be built in Irvine on land previously occupied by an American Air force base. The so named “Great Park” is to be the largest public park in the U.S. Being a flat site, as well as being very hot, the design suggests creating an expansive man-made canyon that serves as the main circulation element. This move also creates microclimates for park goers to enjoy shade, water features, jogging trails and areas for play and recreation (click on the image below to view these conditions diagramed in detail). An additional concept to the design includes a standardized system of transport within the site. “Orange bikes” can be rented for free or nominal charge as is done in many parts of Europe as part of their public transportation system. Also, a guide operated “orange hot air balloon” will take park goers into the sky to experience the park from a completely different perspective. Along with the obvious appeal of this feature for park-goers, the balloons will also serve as a visual cue for those driving to the park from within the city.

This project, although seemingly functional as a public space, and effective in providing an enriching outdoor experience, it is fundamentally problematic in terms of its lack of responsibility to the environment and to socio-economic conditions of L.A. Firstly, due to the project’s location, Angelino’s will need to travel outside of the city into Orange County in order to visit the park. This ignores the already large problem of freeway congestion, and further perpetuates the problem by encouraging Los Angeles citizens to spend more time on the road for weekend or afternoon excursions to the Great Park. Furthermore, because the fact that roadway travel is a requirement for Angelinos to share in the experience of the Great Park, this favors those who own cars over those without cars. Not only is this bias harmful for creating social equity, but will also limit the frequency of visitors to the park. Clearly, the Great Park is problematic in how it is offering resolving L.A.’s problem of having a lack of public space.

As an example of how effective public spaces can be developed within the city, Mark Rios, head of the landscape division at the USC School of Architecture, is working with L.A. leaders to develop public parks in the downtown area. In a recent interview with Rios on local radio station KCRW, Rios noted how the process of “land purification” as well as the construction of such large scale parks can take many years to complete. It is encouraging to see designers such as Rios remain concerned with the creation of spaces that will bring Angelinos of all social and economic backgrounds together, for a worthwhile outdoor experience.

January 28, 2007

Cyber Space: Recent Projects Bridge the Disciplinary Divide Between Multimodal Medias and Architecture

Recent projects bridge the disciplinary divide between multimodal medias and architecture. This juncture represents the willingness of design professionals to seek new ways of defining how we, as a culture and society, perceive the built environment. Within a historical context, this trend can be seen as parallel to the Modern Movement in architecture, which resulted from the radically new methods of production and introduction of new building materials, such as the research done by engineer Henery Bessemer, during the industrial revolution in Britain at the turn of the 19th Century. The current trend in architecture similarly deals with a rapidly expanding scope of new media types that provide today’s artists, architects, and designers with a fresh vehicle by which their artistic disciplines may be advanced.

Once viewed as a linear sequencing of traditional elements, architectural space today is becoming increasingly non-linear. This shift in the way we perceive the built environment, or “space” within the field of architecture is also taking place in various other multimodal art forms. The Labyrinth Project, which has been developed by the University of Southern California’s Annenburg School for Communication, is one such example of how cutting edge media forms influence design and result in increasingly inspiring and imaginative art. As “an art collective and research initiative [focused] on interactive cinema and database narrative,” cultural theorist Marsha Kinder works with “visual artists and writers known for their experimentation with nonlinear forms.”

This project takes the user’s interface with the work as its point of departure. By allowing the user to make choices based on his or her own aesthetic or intellectual prerogative, the user is able to influence the direction of the interactive narrative. The experience of Labyrinth thus enables a more natural progression that is based upon individual choice and preference rather than the authoritarian dominance of the creator. Architecture, in a similar way, however strictly designed by the architect to promote a specific architectural experience, is ultimately contingent upon the choices made by the person who is occupying the space. Thus, the perception of a particular environment, be it a public gathering space, a bustling streetscape in a business district, or the more private quarters of a domestic environment, can all differ from person to person based upon their choices of how to circulate within a building or public space, how they interface with the space, as well as what they focus on as their own architectural points of interest.

When contrasted against classical notions of built environment, it becomes particularly apparent how radically different modern day conceptions of space are. Within his treatise Ten Books of Architecture, writen before 27 B.C, Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius outlined how architectural design should and must be conducted to best support the function of the state as a whole. Vitruvius delineates the architectural process exhaustiveley, whereby methods of city planning, the composition of building facades, and the proportions of design elements, are universally mastered to achieve a preconceived solution and cohesive architectural experience. Modern architecture, I would argue, although casting away the stylistic elements of the Classical schools of architecture as were paramount during the Italian Rennaisance of the 16th century, did not circumlocute the Vitruvian ideal, that embraces a rigid design methodology as the means of achieving an intended reaction by the occupant.

Here is where the advent of multimodal media types, such as interactive media, has intervened. Projects such as Labyrinth are indicating the tendency to move away from the design solution as an absolute or known entity, but rather towards viewing the design as being variable, and dependent upon the choices of the person experiencing the art form. It is exciting that this view is not tied down to one disciplinary field, but instead bridges across professional boundaries: “Labyrinth is committed to creating a productive dialogue between the immersive language of cinema and the interactive potential and database structures of digital media.”

Beyond the scope of interactive media, recent filmmaking has also seen striking associations to architectural notions of how space is experienced. LA Film Forum is one agency that organizes events and film screenings in the Los Angeles area. Recent and upcoming films brought together by the LA Film Forum reveal that the scope of these experimental projects challenge the traditional methods of filmmaking: the presentation of a conflict, the development of that conflict with a character, and concluding in the resolution of that problem. This “linear” concept of conflict-resolution is put into question by newly released films such as Decline and Fall, by filmmaker Erika Suderburg, which is “structured as a historical epic and operates in the frisson between bodies moving through artifact and reinventing the space of urban memory as a lived place.” As part of this system, the sequencing of film clips from socially charged events taken from various locations is used as a method of reshaping the viewer’s perception of their own physical environment. Within this “visual contemplation of these conscious leavings and the bodies that move through and recognize their complicity with the Empire machine,” the film “operates in the interstitials, refusing a comforting explanatory voice-over, a singular location, and a conclusion”.

Here, it is evident that by re-evaluating the standards of traditional film making, recent projects such as Rise and Fall, are re-defining the way in which we perceive of space. Urban space is now being defined by film-makers to not be limited to the physical forms that one may interact with, but have expanded the definition to involve the landscape of memory, and the psychological impact of familiarity with objects and places within the built environment. This added dimension is one which is being used to push the limits of these creative fields in order to reach more imaginative and inspiring works.