The Bright Orange Elephant in the City
A young woman sitting, reading, basking in the sunlight in the middle of Downtown Oakland would not necessarily be a noteworthy occurrence on its own. Nor would the existence of two large, orange, plastic construction barriers; paraphernalia of development and a changing downtown that is seeing an influx of private, as well as public investment.
The Interesting thing about the existence of these two players, the human and the barrier, is the unexpected interaction between the two. The mundane act of reading takes on a new meaning for architects, planners and designers of our urban public spaces when human agency overcomes the arbitrary limitations of intended use. A bench is a bench until a construction barrier becomes a bench. In which case, a bench becomes an obsolete symbol of the human need to systematically engineer public experience into a series of safe, expected and entirely uninteresting interactions with objects of prescribed use. Is there a need and appropriate application of items whose design is so refined, that it become immediately apparent what the object is, and what I (the subject) am supposed to do with it? Of Course. Are cities that application? I think not.
Our cities are becoming numb wastelands where guideline/ handbook* design is becoming so common, that our urban fabric is being stitched with monotony instead of intrigue and discovery. Despite its clearly engineered form, the construction barrier in this episode is an elegant example of where the design of public spaces should be heading. It being located on the periphery of the construction site allows it to be functional, while forcing it to engage the passerby. While not completely unfamiliar, it is a rare, temporary object placed into the urban landscape. An alien form that shifts the public’s urban experience in a small way.
This method of introducing alien forms into the urban landscape is a method wholly unexplored by many architects, landscape architects and urban designers. And why hasn’t it? It gives us the opportunity as designers to be unsure of the resultant product of our installations. It frees us to test formal hypotheses and restricts from applying known entities. It gives the public something to react to in a new way. No longer does a bench need to be a bench, a retaining wall be a retaining wall or a bus shelter be a bus shelter. We can explore new formal methodologies that provide the same function, while creating potential for new, subject defined uses.
It works the opposite way as well. Is the way we, as humans, behave in urban environments obsolete? Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. However, when we encounter an object whose use is thoroughly engineered for our usability in a very specific way, the reaction elicited by the object will always be the same. This is a bench, so I sit. Scaling that up to a complete urban environment, we are only navigating ecosystems of these known entities, telling us how to interact at every step along the way. I sit on the bench, stand under the bus shelter, cross the street when the little LED asshole tells me too, etc. Eventually we get to our destination; our carved out urban void, with absolutely no meaningful recollection of how we got there.
What if the objects we encountered throughout our urban adventures forced us to find meaning instead of having it delivered to us on a platter of blatancy? It would change the nature of our interactions, and make them more powerful. As designers, this is the way to inject significance into the urban experience, one object at a time.
Thinking once again about the barrier, we are presented with two ways to understand the significance of this “alien form”. The simpler explanation would be to assume that the mundane object receives meaning by being placed in an unusual context. We don’t really see barriers like that unless we are on the highway, in a car, removed from them, and seeing them in a pedestrian zone completely changes it. To me, the more useful way to think about is that the scale, color, materiality and other very physical characteristics themselves are what gives it meaning. How often have you touched a barrier like what is in the picture? I’m sure we all have a few times, however we never have a chance to contemplate how we use it. For all intents and purposes, it is a new form forced upon our urban experience, to which we are obligated to discover how to interact.
Compared to a human, the barrier is at a completely strange scale. Not quite a height to sit on comfortably, and not quite tall enough to psychologically be a wall. It certainly isn’t aesthetically pleasing, and it certainly isn’t pleasant to the touch. So why then, is our subject drawn to the barrier enough that she would climb it, and linger long enough to get some serious reading done? I would posit that she was drawn by the indescribable qualities of it that make it inviting, and ultimately a successful, new, urban object. Maybe it is the height? It’s high enough that its intriguing, and offers a little bit of separation from the street level due to it not being quite a convenient sitting level. However, it isn’t too high that the top is completely inaccessible. Maybe it’s the depth? It’s deep enough that she can sit cross-legged and place her book bag down. However, it isn’t deep enough that another person will try to sit there next to her. It is her barrier, her urban fiefdom for the afternoon.
In reality it is probably a blend of various formal aspects that were derived completely separately from the intended function for the object as well as the function it ended up being used for, in this case a reading bench. Something happens when a subject is forced to interact with an object they are unsure of. This is capital “A” Affect. The un- designed interaction between subject and object that causes the subject to feel, perceive, then analyze. Our reader’s actions weren’t informed by the clear symbolism and hyper-functional obviousness of the object. It was informed about the way she felt about the object, and then how she decided to act on those feelings.
This imbuement of Affect can only be achieved by the introduction of new forms into the user interaction process. As the design world becomes closer and closer to the marriage of digital design and fabrication, through technologies like 3d printing, CNC laser cutting, etc., we are able to rapidly create new forms, previously unknown to humankind, without the restrictions of being able to build them. I can precisely model an amorphous blob in Maya or Rhino, and have it perfectly reproduced in physical material through digital fabrication, down to the fraction of a micron. We must utilize these technologies to introduce new forms into the urban ecology in order to save our cities from becoming a neutral, phenomenological void.
Somewhat fortuitously, the barrier- reading lounge incident happened a few feet away from where Viscera plans to build our parklet. It will be the world’s first parklet to employ 3d printing in its fabrication. We hope that it will enable us to explore the new formal capabilities of the technology, and thus introduce our own alien form into the urban landscape of Downtown Oakland.