|The Fourth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2002|
Places, Not Just Passageways
Standing above a print of the Nolli plan unfurled on the floor, I see black and I see white. In the positive-negative composition distinguishing mass from void, building versus street, it is not immediately apparent which is which. As if puzzling over an M.C. Escher etching, my right brain is battling my left, in one instant pushing the ink into the page, in another, lifting it towards my eyes. After a moment I step back and allow my mind to settle; I find the matrix of alleys and piazzas is white, and then I discover the color of the paper represents much more than the background.
I take to the streets, and experience for myself the intricacies of the print extruded into three dimensions. Here too, I discover the streets are not just the background, but rather a series of rooms no less composed than the buildings themselves. I walk into and out of buildings, neither is residual space. Rather, the complimentary forms are mutually reinforcing, each enriching the character of the other. Again I recall M.C. Escher, the image of Day and Night tessellates through my mind; I see each dove's tail by day form another dove's head by night. Around each corner the analogy holds true, indoor rooms framing outdoor rooms and vice-versa, the city tessellates.
I learn from Rome that the best streets are places as well as passageways; the space is positive, with edges, boundaries, and enclosure. Within the street the city comes alive; it is the place of gathering, commerce, recreation, and celebration. In the space of the street develops a sense of community; it is the threshold of the public and private realms, an opportunity for chance interaction and deliberate meeting. In any downtown, streets suggest the framework of the city but in medieval Rome and other great places, the street has also become the vessel of social interaction.
Throughout the world, the structures of antiquity were established piecemeal, gradually fleshing a few buildings into streets, street into cities. As in the ancient, Asian game of Go, each move is a response to the existing pieces, culminating in a beautiful and organic composition. Each move exercises strategy and defines space. Every gesture looks ahead, suggesting a sequence, but ultimately offering many possibilities. The game lives and grows; it is an organism, no two alike and based on a single cell, but, adapting and transforming with time. I walk through the streets, I am miniscule and inside the organism. I explore the matrix of basalt pavers, they define the board; I walk among the buildings, each a stone within the game. Studying each gesture I feel the tension and power, the stones project their aura. Although a building mass displaces a certain volume of air, it makes implications beyond that; a single stone may control many squares although physically occupying just one. Through these streets, I understand the nature of the game.
At some point in history the game grew more complex. The internal combustion engine forever changed the concept of transportation; industry and manufacturing modified the nature of life. The problem has changed, and the solutions have diversified; the game has never been the same. I recently flew from Rome to New York to Los Angeles; cities are not what they used to be either. We have mild steel and moment connections, automobiles and nine-lane freeways; space is now created and consumed in a completely different fashion. En route, I fly over Las Vegas, Nevada-the famed city of desert lights. It turns out within its sleepless nights the city is busy growing, perpetually expanding and consuming the desert. I fly at night, lights line the streets, and they do not stop. The term power-grid never made so much sense; I see quarter-mile blocks extending into oblivion, the rectangle repeats so easily. Some lights move, they are cars. I don't see any people; they are too small. The whole environment seems inhumane, out of scale. I am rather disgusted and somewhat intrigued. I relish that 15 minutes of reflection, my 15 minutes over Las Vegas. I do the math. Fifteen minutes by plane is a long walk. I think about walking across the Sin City, I could never do it.
Unfortunately, this is not only an American enigma. Even Rome, beyond the historic center, digresses into an expanse of concrete and asphalt, with freestanding apartment blocks stale on the land, networked by boundless parkways with no reference to the aforementioned Roman strada. Throughout the world, land is used up at an unprecedented rate, wrecking ecosystems and building inferior cities. Road-cuts precede buildings, and hasty development consumes rather than cultivates.
I find myself in the sky again, I feel like a bird looking down. But this time I am not flying. I am in Siena, Italy, perched atop the campanile. The bell is ringing; I cover my ears and focus on seeing. I look around and witness stone buildings giving way to Tuscan fields. I see the edge and I am at the center. The edge is solid but not too abrupt. It is a wall, originally built to keep things out, but I notice it also holds things in quite nicely-the bowels of the city cannot spill beyond. Siena built a wall for protection, but the need has passed. Modern cities don't require walls, but sometimes, I wonder if they should; after all, strong boundaries create vibrant centers, and vibrant centers create strong streets.
However, development inspired by automobiles and reliant on fabrication shows no respect for the center, and minimal regard for what is already there. New development generally grows on the periphery where land is cheapest, forming suburbs heavily detached from historical or cultural districts. Manufacturing breeds a mentality where overbuilding compensates for under-planning. A freshly bulldozed strip, regardless of location, has become so much more lucrative than opportunities for adaptation or infill towards the center. More than ever, the concept of playing the best move is being undermined by the opportunity to play the most straightforward move. Hence, individuals follow the developers' lead, and forego urban lifestyles on foot for suburban homes and suburban cars.
This mentality is manifested in things like gated communities, which tend to present many gates but no sense of community. Among aisles and rows of single-family residences, children have plenty of room to coast their bikes through broad, traffic-less streets and cul-de-sacs, but with some irony, have no place to go. The destinations have been removed; there is not a loaf of bread or jug of milk within walking distance, and the local cinema has transformed into a multiplex across town, accessed by the expressway and floating in a sea of parking lots, out of scale and out of reach. More importantly, when people are forced to separate where they reside and where they work, it becomes unclear where they actually live. For too many, the answer has become a car, idling for hours each day, idling their lives to an inhumane resolution.
The problems with modern cities create problems with modern streets. Streets should take people places, not just directions. I grew up among a low-density grid of residential plots and strip malls. I remember the arbitrary quality of giving directions in an X-Y coordinate system. There was little drama, only street numbers. There was a sense of placelessness, if there is such a thing. Places were easy to find-which is good-because they certainly were not worth remembering. Streets were dead, lacked enclosure, and overrun with traffic, certainly not a place for social interaction. If the street should serve as the mediator of public and private lives, here exist no streets at all. Within this environment, I found myself incapable of living out either existence; the swath of bare pavement developed no edges for privacy, yet there were no other people to create a public realm. It was me alone and unsheltered against the backdrop of speeding automobiles, unsure of my role, and unsure how to behave.
As architects we hold the reigns and can steer our cities towards a more promising future. The key, of course, resides in truly understanding the problem. Principally, it is helpful to understand how good streets have been created in the past; but with greater emphasis, it is essential to understand that we cannot simply recreate them. We cannot rebuild Rome, or import Marrakech; that is the work of Disneyland, and it will remain a false fantasy. The great streets of the world are instances within living and evolving organisms akin to their place, time, and culture.
In understanding the human quality of Rome, it is apparent that architecture is created for people, but also created by people. Through lifestyles emerge buildings, and through architecture the life is expressed. At every degree of scale there is an effort to accommodate human sensibilities, and most notably, this is achieved through a level of human craft, a distinguishable imprint of people at work. As I experience these Roman streets, I envision keystones hoisted on backs, rustication notched by hand. I then discover in the characteristic sweeps of cobblestones, a person kneeled and fixed them one-by-one at arm's reach. But of course, these are elements we cannot recreate, it is not the vocabulary of our time, these are not our methods. We can only borrow their spirit, not their practice. We can only strive to create architecture adaptive and impressionable, create streets that capture the quality of human existence, absorb it like pigment on paper.
Rome is vibrant in character, like a drawing that has been worked over and over. It shows the process, the regeneration of ideas, with new forms emerging from old shapes. Ideas are constantly reused and cultivated into a rich and thoughtful response. Rome tells its own story, preserving what is there and tracing over it, drawing the same oval again and again until it is thoroughly understood. That oval, once the ancient Domitian's Stadium, is now retained within the poetic outline of Piazza Navona-the social center of The Eternal City. Architecture is a process of refinement, not of material, of humanity, striving to support cultural needs, which evolve and change over time. Architecture is the restructuring of what is there. Rome respects what is there, and that is the essential role of the architect-to observe carefully and respond, to be sensitive to human life, and in places, preserve the life that is already there. After all, architecture is not just about making beautiful things; it is about making beautiful things come alive.
I look for things that have come to life. In my search, hours in the library, I peruse the usual suspects; find the work of my mentors, architects past and present. I anxiously flip through hundreds of images, repeatedly eschewing one book for another, and leaving books strewn about the floor. I see many idealized images, but never architecture; there are no people within the pages, and I cannot understand the spaces. What are buildings without people? What can I learn, what is there to observe?
I am instructed to review the photographs of streets posted on the web. Scrolling up and down, I see eight images tiled about the screen-not a single picture of a street in the bunch, rather eight evocative images of people … and I am inspired. I observe, and I understand; I understand that without people architecture does not exist. My instinctual response to people will always exceed that to buildings; people are animated and expressive, they are exhibitionists and observers. Buildings compose the backdrop, the stage set-vital to society, useless without it. The presence of people makes the street, and the presence of people defines architecture.
I want to bring people to my street, make it beautiful, and make it come to life. I want to know how. I know I can't change the way people live, change their ways of life. I must watch them, respond to them. That is what I will do…as an architect. I will create places for people; make them comfortable within my street. I will respond to their needs, their uses, their history, and their culture. It will be different everywhere in the world, each case being a distinct instance demanding a unique response. This how I will learn. I will understand people through observation. I will understand architecture through people. This is my tool; this is how I will continually adapt to a world of perpetual change.
The Nolli map is again fixed it my mind, vivid as ever. It is crisp and clean, but I want more. I search for my scale; then decide not to bother; I already know that it is not life-size; I know it is made of paper, not of stone. I become disinterested then take to the streets. I am home again, living and breathing as part of the organism. I give it my energy and let it feed from me so that I may learn. We are intertwined, and I am inspired to take my ideas further, and not just on paper; I don't want to be a paper architect. There is a limit to what I can understand through the drawing, writing, and rendering. Nor can a computer teach me what I need most. I am in need of something more fundamental, more crucial. It is people I need… I need people to teach me about architecture and humanity.
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