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September 25, 2006

Prompt # 2

At this time last year I had the amazing privilege to live in Florence, Italy and go to school right near the Duomo in the center of town. My parents at the time were living in a tiny climbing town in northern Italy named Arco so I got to experience both the 'big town' and 'little village' design scheme 'a la italia'. People talk a lot about how different the layout of European cities is, and how everyone walks everywhere and knows everyone, but to experience this first hand gave me a new understanding of the immense impact a city's layout has on the surrounding culture. I was amazed and inspired by the feeling of community, the physical activity, and the general regional pride created by (what I will from here on call) the 'piazza mentality'.
Florence and Arco (and most other Eurpean cities) are modern towns with ancient histories. The central areas in particular are almost entirely made up of buildings and pathways that are hundreds of years old. Though much has changed since the invention of the car and the general globalization of the economy, the ancient layout of Florence has remained the same. There is a main city center where you will find the largest church and its surrounding piazza or square connecting to the piazzas around the houses of the ruling lords/government buildings, and the modern day trainstation. Moving out from this city center the city is laid out in rough neighborhoods, each containing its own piazza that generally supplies its needs. The piazzas are essentially little self-sufficient mini centers, with shops generally spread out around a central square that has some sort of monument or marker and often places to sit or congregate.
The beauty of the piazza is threefold- not only does it create an automatic community identity for the neighborhood around it, the piazza nourishes local economy, and increases the health of the people living nearby (they have to walk!). You know your butcher, you talk to the breadmaker everyday, your produce is fresh and your community is tight. Italians have fierce regional pride that makes their politics tricky but certainly seems to help the energy of their towns.

an italian piazza
Herein lies my social design issue. More and more cities are expanding from clumsy city centers to large strands of tacky suburban sprawl, with no attention to community, local culture/identity, or even aesthetic. In an effort to create quick housing for quick money, and quick shopping malls are thrown up to supply the needs of the quick housing development, and suddenly even coffee shops- a rare congregation point- have drive through windows so you don't even have to get out of your car to get your daily cuppa joe (much less know who serves it to you!). Now I can tell you first hand that the italians have it far from perfect and-rather tragically- the italian building style and layout scheme is quickly changing and adapting to the needs of the global comsumerist economy, but the piazzas remain, and the piazza mentality lives on as a lesson to us all.
Just think- what if all housing developments were built to be beautiful sustainable little communities, with centers that houses local shops run by local artisans and butchers etc. With the large amount of suburbs dedicated to housing commuter populations its hard to imagine who could own these shops, moreover, how these shops could stay in business with huge Targets and Wallmarts nearby, but even the slightest inclination on developer's parts toward a more community-focused building style would be a huge improvement. We need to take the idea of the 'community center' to a new level and make it something that truly brings together all the people in the area, creates a sense of place, and engenders relationships between different classes and races. I don't think it would be easy, but i do think it would be worth it...
If you know your grocer, are you going to steal from him? If your pharmacist is known by all her customers by name, is she likely to slight or overcharge them? If we all had to walk to the gorcery store everyday to buy just that day's food, would we have such an obese nation?
There are many reasons why mainland America has developed as it has, and many practical arguments against the time, money, and effort that would be required to design with such a community-consciousness, but do we really want to resign ourselves to the alternative? Do we want to surrender to a future of identical row-houses and strip-malls? Where everyone lives in their car, has no idea who their neighbor is, and is 50lbs overweight? Personally, the thought makes me queasy.
our local shops?
a neighborhood?
It seems to me that a few well-designed piazzas could do our country good...

September 17, 2006

Prompt #1

Prompt #1: Go to the Midtown Market on Lake street and observe. Define energy. List the ways you might create, use, and exchange energy there.

Hover your hands just a few centimeters above your knees as you sit reading this. Do you feel that? There is something very alive, very magnetic between the two body parts. Why is it that we can feel something when it's nothing's actually touching our nerve endings? Or, try staring at someone (in your least crazy-stalker/psycho-killer way) when you are stopped next to them in traffic and see if they notice. Often they do. How is that possible? More relevant to this class, go into a 'creepy' building and try and explain the 'bad vibe' you feel. WHat is that?

My opinion? Energy. It's all energy.

Unless you get deep into a field like quantum physics (weee!), or hang out too much in hippy Paia, Maui, the idea of an intangible, un-seeable, 'force' called energy is not generally accepted as a solid aspect of reality in mainland American culture. In other parts of the world, whole forms of medicine are based on it, but in western culture, energy is something we get billed for, have to deal with in tedious homework, drink in brightly graphic cans, and the word for calories on foreign nutrition labels, but otherwise has no real place in daily life.

I am going to risk sounding like a granola-eatin', hemp wearing hippy and suggest a different view of energy. I think energy IS daily life. Sounds crazy I know, but how else do you answer all those questions? If we don't have some sort of life-force/heat/chi then how is it that we can feel other people when they aren't touching us? Stand 6inches away from someone you're attracted to and tell me you don't feel something; something that you can't see but is more powerful than many things you can. Scientists say that everything is made up of energy, and that all particles vibrate at different frequencies, and though it sounds strange, I just happen to agree with them. I think it's in everything and everyone- you, me... your mom... your mom's house...

Or, more to the point, it's in the Midtown Market. Groups of people, food, commerce, all seem to create a lot of energy. In an overall sense, the amount or type of energy seems to determine the success of every type of gathering- be it a market, a party, or blind date. There seems to be an overall big energy created by the very event of the market, and then subtler energetic 'dynamics' shifting and shaping within the market. Energy explains to me why I am drawn to some vendors and not to the others and why people tend to walk in a similar pattern around the area... I think it's in every alive thing and affected by the various attributes of the surrounding environment. I can't say why, or where it comes from (I'll leave that to the astrophysisists) but I do experience it every day, and certainly felt it at Midtown.

This saturday was my first time going to the Midtown Market, though farmer's markets are a weekly tradition for me. I love the hustle and bustle, the eager (energetic) vendors, and always come home with a bounty of fresh treasures to cook with. In response to the question, I think energy there is created mainly by the people, but it is directed and affected by the whole environment of the place. The market I usually go to (by the basillica) has the vendors set up in rows (instead of the rather circular layout of Midtown) and consequently feels much more commercial when compared to the community-building atmosphere I experienced on Saturday. Midtown also had fewer people (sellers and buyers) so the whole experience was much more intimate and friendly. A successful business man once told me that money is just a form of energy, and I would say that there is a give and take of energy with each transaction that goes on at the market, be it monetary or just conversational. There is also energy created and directed by all the sounds and voices. While I was there, a great older woman had the mic and was telling a story to the gathered kids (imitation voices and all) and extolling the virtues of the farmer's market and community in general in a loud and bubbly tone. It made for a very lively and warm atmosphere. Also contributing were the colors, the people, the layout, the weather...

As architects, I'm sure that manipulating the 'energy' of a place through form, color, layout, materials etc., will become second nature to us. To me, some of the most successful architects, are successful because of their ability to foresee in the design process how a space is going to feel, and tweak their designs instinctively...

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go eat a fresh local apple (I'm getting low-energy). ;)