Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Real Writer

Maybe I can call myself an author now. At least a published writer. Thanks to Crit, I can now add a small entry onto my CV - "published article". Sweet.

Crit is sent to all members of AIAS (American Institute of Architecture Students). You can also become a library subscriber to get a full issue, which is filled with articles, essays, images from other architecture junkies/students/critics. Highly recommended as an alternative to more readily available publications. For me, it's nice to hear what other people are thinking about/writing about when it comes to issues within this crazy profession.

This past issue focused around ideas of infrastructure. You know, the things you use everyday, but usually think nothing about. There is a whole world of issues that need to be addressed, and I am glad that Crit took the time to explore this area that often gets passed over for flashier pursuits.

As for my take on infrastructure, well, I've attached the text below. Hopefully it'll get you interested enough in getting an issue yourself, or at least finding an issue in the library to check out.

The Street Where You Live (from Crit Fall 08)

I find myself miles from where I grew up. My childhood was spent running between the backyards of my friends' homes, clustered in an idyllic suburb of American mythology: green grass, sidewalks, open doors, neighbors that knew you, family, and probably everyone you called friends.

I now live on a numbered street, in a small walk-up in the
East Village. The street where I live is filled with—best guess—a couple hundred other people, all in apartments, all living the life of metropolitan fantasy: a quick walk to restaurants and bars, a 24-hour deli right around the corner, a local Laundromat with drop-off and same day service, and of course, a gym just five minutes away.

So much of our life is spent outside; outside of buildings, homes, schools, offices—the spaces that fixate our profession. In the car-oriented world of my childhood, this time was spent on roads—some quaint, some vast—all laid out to meet an exacting set of standards for parking spaces, passing lanes, and—at least in my home town—bike lanes. In the dense, pedestrian packed urban landscape of the city, this time is spent on sidewalks, narrow and wide, often dodging other people, plants and the odd bag of trash. There is a haphazard quality to the sidewalks of New York, the way things are patched together, the surfaces changing from building to building; a marker of the city's evolution, perhaps.

Despite the amount of time we spend transversing this part of the built landscape, we spend little time thinking about it; how we use it, how it is laid out, how we experience it. We walk on it, we drive on it. It provides us access from one point to another. The thing we use most is, well, the furthest from our minds.

It seems to me that this space between is both a product of, and a producer of, the designed spaces that border it. That the streets of my childhood were also my playground is partly because this was where we would run into our neighbors. We all had backyards to play in, but being out on the street meant we could see our friends as they came home and could call them over to hang out. It facilitated communication, contact—the principles that made my neighborhood so idyllic. Even now, when I go home to visit, I am more likely than not to strike up a conversation with a neighbor if I just hang out in the driveway.

In Urban Design class, we were drilled on the ideal street section. In our world, where New Urbanism ruled, you needed front porches on each side of the street, each with a section of front lawn, a sidewalk, a small green curb, and a two lane street in between. We laughed at it then, since it was so dogmatic.
But, then again, my childhood home was a prime example if it working.

My current street isn't quite like that, or even that of the
New York streets depicted in Sesame Street. I don't know any of my neighbors, though there are various characters with their very specific routines. The man in sunglasses, for instance, who, from sun-up to sun-down, stands in front of the door to his building, staring straight ahead as the world passes in front of him. No kids play in the street, and it is often lined with garbage bags, awaiting their every-other-day pick-up. On my street, you'll see people going about their urban lives; walking their dogs at morning and night, hauling their laundry to the dry cleaners on the street, carrying their groceries back to their apartments. The street fits the people here—mostly young singles and couples, working during the day, and out at night, who need their streets to fulfill the other necessities of life.

And yet, a funny thing happens in the city. This space, seemingly owned by no one and everyone, is under constant occupation. We wait for friends on shady corners, take a quick lunch on curbs or stoops, strew about haphazard barriers so that we can dine al fresco. Everywhere one looks, people occupy and use the streets—a secondary manipulation.

The same could be said for the street of my childhood. We would chalk up the street for games, and in the winter our sidewalks became raceways for sledding. This zone of communal ownership was our playground, and we used it for all it was worth.

What I realize is this: if space is available, we want to use it. This is especially true in the city, where space is limited. We'll find places to sit, to congregate, even if these spaces aren’t designated for those purposes. By adding a bench people stop and rest, even if the street is less than picturesque. Street fairs turn ordinary thoroughfares into plazas, which bring out thousands, damn the traffic headaches they may cause.
New York City will even close a 6 mile stretch of road—from Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park—for three days this summer, just to give the city a place to play. Carts will roll in, tables will come out, street performers will appear, and we'll pretend that Lafaytte and Park Avenue are Las Ramblas of Barcelona or Le Champs l'Elysee of Paris.

So imagine. Imagine if we planned for this? Imagine if we, as architects, thought about ways to connect experiences beyond the walls of the projects we build? After all, we are able to turn a dirty
New York street into a festival for a day, despite lack of planning, or the infrastructure to support it. What would that festival be like if we had? I'd like to think, that with the right planning and fore-thought, it would be a hybrid of the street I live on today and the street on which I used to live. And for me, well, that would probably be pretty close to perfect.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Digging in

So I've rung in the new year with dust and dirt and just a little bit of anxiety. Renovation territory, I suppose.

Tearing up tile was cathartic, in a way. Demolition gave me something to do, a place to go every day for the last month or so. A job for the jobless. And the challenge of beating a foe whose back-breaking stubbornness could make you cry at the end of the day. Imagine tile glued to particle board glued, stapled and screwed to de-laminating plywood.

It was my Everest for this past month. You reach one point of accomplishment only to see what lies before you. Almost endless, it seems. But you plug yourself back in, because, well, there ain't no turning back once you've set off on this particular challenge. Especially when the challenge ahead is a direct result of the accomplishment just made. In this case, tile removed, only to realize a weak sub-floor must be addressed.

Renovations are full of surprises. Taking the floor to the joists was one of them. Guts exposed, the hidden workings brought to light for the first time in 24 years. It's amazing how much has both changed and stayed the same in the construction field. Solid wood joists? Rarely find those anymore. But the method of framing? Pretty much the same now as it was then. (Though our house was probably a particular nightmare for the contractor back then.)

It's been an interesting way to ring in the year. Much different than the office job which filled my time last year. But, at least I'm still learning. Like, how the size of a prybar does not always relate to its effectiveness. Or how to walk across beams quickly (a useful trick I hope to use in the future). Or how important your fixture choice is when you know you'll be living with it daily.

In a couple of months, I hope this Everest will be surmounted. Until then, I'll continue taking it a step at a time. It helps, however, to be able to look back, and see at least something has been done.

It also helps to know that you have people helping you who know what they are doing.