City Life

I watched a documentary film recently about urban planning titled Urbanized. It had an empowering though not altogether accurate message that a lot of design-minded people subscribe to: that systemic problems can be at least temporarily fixed with cunning and experimentation. The film showcases a half dozen or so urban projects taking place in cities throughout the world that are supposed to be solving problems specific to their place and time and that are being shaped in ways that are responsive to the people they are supposed to benefit. The designers and architects interviewed are people of remarkable vision and will, very smart, heroically competent. But I find that many of them appear to lack a sense of history. It seems appropriate, I think, because design is a prospective endeavor. Designers will look into the past for inspiration, but usually not out of precaution. Most of the designers I’ve met don’t appreciate their work being repudiated, and it’s a timid and ineffectual practitioner who’s inclined to look around for reasons to doubt his own work. That said, I’ve seen design people aligning themselves with false ideology, and it’s due to their neglect of history. Example: In Urbanized, there is a professor of urban planning from Columbia University who makes the assertion that most cities are founded in locations that are conducive to trade. This is false. Almost any city founded before the industrial era exists where it does because the terrain upon which it sits is easily defensible. One might make an exception for coastal cities, which are normally built where there is a natural harbor or protection from weather. But most of the world’s major capitals are not port cities, despite the obvious advantages of trade and travel; and if you go back 500 years ago, this is almost exclusively the case. Old cities are built inland, on high ground. They begin as fortresses housing a king or a lord. Commerce grows up around the spot due to security and stability offered by the regent. I think this was the case all the way up until the end of the 18th century when artillery bombardment became a formidable tactic of siege warfare, at which point it didn’t matter if a city was high or low, had thick walls or no wall. For the rest of human history, people emigrated to cities to conduct their business in safety and peace.

Trade and culture are not the roots of a city’s greatness. The city is mighty because it is the seat of power. There is an authority that moderates interactions between citizens, controls the environment, regulates occurrences. To be a denizen of the city is to obey and to expect the obedience of others. Trade and culture are just by-products of uniform compliance. This hasn’t changed in the modern era.

Hallucinatory Playground Installations
of the Soviet Union

For some reason, playgrounds in the Soviet Union often featured distorted, inscrutable statues of fairy tale creatures, some legitimate characters from folklore, others just wild fever dream hallucinations. It is difficult to say if the grotesquerie of the figures was an accidental or intended. I like to imagine disillusioned artists from the provinces with no other method of publicizing their work being commissioned to do these jobs. They are uncooperative from the very beginning. They quarrel with the bureaucrats dispatched to oversee the projects. I see local officials despising the works once their finished, but since immediately tearing them down after their completion would be proof of their mismanagement of the project and make them vulnerable to criticism within the party, they leave them up. The disabused artists accomplish their aim: to frighten and terrorize a society which they loathe profoundly, to use the people’s own small mindedness to disturb and cause unease.

Then again, since this was communist Russia, there was probably a single guy who worked for the Ministry of Recreation or some such department whose only job was to design playground equipment for the whole empire. Maybe this gentleman was attempting whimsy but was incapable of imaginative play and humor. Maybe he confused fanciful illusion with basic abnormality. And so we have these images that are actually kind of subversive emerging out of blind ineptitude. I still admire what they were trying to do. The modern playground is built to be nothing more than a mechanism for expending effort through vigorous physicality. They are really just workout facilities for children. The people who designed soviet parks were trying to make these spaces more interesting for kids. The statues are supposed to imbue the playground with enchantment and inspire children to respond involuntarily with wonder. They do succeed in conjuring up a special magic; unfortunately it’s the accursed kind.

All of these images come from the excellent, a website devoted to Soviet-era kitsch and oddity.













Passing Time in Urban Parks

The picture above is an aerial view of Volkspark Friedrichshain in Berlin, Germany. I once stumbled upon this place while wandering the city. I remember being delighted by all the winding trails and secret meadows I found there. There were placid little duck ponds hidden away from the main paths, trysting places for the teenagers to fool around in, occasional statues and fountains. I went on a Sunday, so the park was teaming with people. Berliners seem to use the park for afternoon jogs and walking their dogs. Sometimes you’d see a pairs kicking a soccer ball around or playing Frisbee. The most common activity was just laying in the sun, not for the sake of getting a tan—the Northern European sun is too feeble for that and almost everyone was clothed anyway—but just to be outside, among people. I recall thinking that this park seemed very foreign to me, and that they way people were using the space felt very novel. It is unusual to find parks like Friedrichshain in the United States, with manicured landscapes made to resemble an idealized version of nature. If Americans wish to visit the wild, we get into our cars and drive there. Cities I the United States do tend to have little parks where people can have cook outs on the weekends and walk their dogs on grass to get them to shit. These parks are pretty often under maintained and they aren’t particularly well planned either. They always seem to open and exposed, never enough trees and usually no bushes or interesting flora. I’ve always found that American parks are designed to accommodate a specific set of prescribed activities. They tend not to be places to lay around an loiter. When one goes to a park in the United States, it is usually to play sports, or ride around in a paddleboat, or do something that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do in your own backyard.


This next picture is of the north section of Humboldt Park on Chicago’s west side. With its lagoon and spacious grounds, it could be a very beautiful and bucolic place in the middle of a dense, big city neighborhood. Its designers could have planted dense forests, and they could have carved labyrinthine paths into them like with Friedrichshain. Of course, because of the suspicion everyone in Chicago has for one another and the general anxiety about petty crime, the park is left exposed and only lightly wooded so that it can be easily surveilled. For some reason, all of the interesting spots around the lagoon have been plowed over and made into ball fields. I count seven baseball diamonds and five more diamonds for softball. There is also some sort of ballpark on the left for competitive league play. Continuing to add to the inventory, there are four different playgrounds, four tennis courts, a soccer field, a boathouse, two sand volleyball courts, and the stocking shaped pit in the upper left I believe is an ice skating rink. This is not a place where people go to simply sit and relax. People convene here to play sports. They are keeping busy attending to the performance of an activities. The only people I’ve ever seen lying down in Humboldt Park are the homeless men who live there.

Crowd-made Walkways

I took the photo above at Commons Park in downtown Denver. Years ago, this space was a rail yard. More recently it was converted to an open space park with handsome landscaping and an irrigated grass lawn. This particular part of the park has a nice, wide-open space with paved sidewalks circling the parameter. It seems the sidewalks were designed to form a circuit that people could walk on their lunch hour. As you can see, most people choose to cut through the open field than to walk around it on the sidewalks, so much so that they’ve actually worn trench into the earth that runs from one entrance to the other. The parks people responsible for maintaining the place must have decided that foot traffic was beginning to damage the grounds because they’ve posted a sign reading “PLEASE USE SIDEWALK.” Of course this has succeeded in nothing more than splitting the path at its one side. The allure of the more direct route just proves too tantalizing for people.

Obviously the circuitous sidewalks in Commons Park were a miscalculation on the part of the architects who designed this space. People walk through this park to get to work. It’s the one of the only ways you can enter the downtown area by foot from the Highlands neighborhood. Certainly there are plenty of people who visit the park to relax and will stroll from walk to walk, as they were meant to do. But there are also thousands of people who are just trying to pass through the area as quickly as possible. The designers forgot to account for this prime use scenario of maximum expedience..

It’s a shame that you don’t get to find out how people are going to use a park until it’s already built. You can’t blame the architects for failing to account for every individual demand placed on the park by its visitors. But now that the path has been trodden and the new route an emergent reality, I think you can begin to fault the city for insisting that the plan continue to be followed rather than accommodating the wisdom of the crowd when it turns in another direction. There’s really no good reason not to install paving stones into the footpath and maintain it as an alternative path. Either the grounds people responsible for Commons Park are too thick to reinterpret the space, or they are stubborn and refuse to adjust their original plan. A better idea would have been to leave the whole place unpaved for a year and then observe how the foot traffic distributes itself across the landscape. That’s actually how public ways were planned before the age of mechanized transportation and our modern predilection for pavement. When Dartmouth College first opened in the late 18th century, the school did nothing at first to demarcate paths from one building to another. When winter came, the school gardener marked the paths students tracked in the snow as they went back and forth to classes. Then the following spring, he cut trails from the tracks. Consequently, Dartmouth today has a terrific snarl of paths and walkways. While the arrangement may not appear symmetrical, it has plenty of practical purpose.

IKEA Hacks

Lamps made from IKEA pine furniture pieces.

I’ve met a lot of designers and architects who have these utopian visions of what life and society could be. Some very seriously believe that every problem has a solution and every custom can be made better or easier with good design. This kind of practical idealism is problematic for a lot of reasons, foremost of which, I believe, is the fact that it is most often those in control of society’s means of production who define good design even is. Modern manufacture divides labor and places design authority into the hands of specialists rather than into those of the user. Before industry, people shaped their own surroundings to suit their needs. They made their own tools, fashioned their own furniture and clothes. I’m not about to say that I would give up the multitude of manufactured items common to modern life in exchange for the limited range of objects I would be able to create myself, but I think one could legitimately argue that our dependency on industrial output makes us more vulnerable to deterministic forces that are beyond our control and susceptible to influence and manipulation from centralized power.

Terrarium for pet turtle

In response to our growing alienation from the industrial processes that shape our lives, a growing movement of DIY hobbyists has sprouted up in the last 20 years or so. One of my favorite DIY online communities is IKEA Hackers. On the website, members share modification recipes for IKEA merchandise. People rate each other’s mods based on usefulness and creativity. The most popular hacks among members are the ones that diverge most flagrantly from IKEA’s original intent for the product. The irony of these deconstructions is that IKEA hackers are disrupting the planned application of an object that IKEA has already proposed to be “good design.” The company’s mission statement reads, “At IKEA, our vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people. Our business idea supports this vision by offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.” By ignoring the designers’ carefully crafted preparations and simply using the products as raw material, IKEA hackers not only invalidate the supposed preeminence of IKEA’s superior design but also undermine the power IKEA wields in being able to prescribe its so-called “good design” as a cultural convention.

As with many mod communities, not all IKEA hackers are resentful of IKEA’s hubris or seek to advance an anti-consumerist agenda. Many are IKEA enthusiasts who genuinely appreciate the products and admire their design. The user’s introducing additional functionality to a particular item does not have to imply a complete negation of the designer’s original purpose. On the contrary, it proves the item to be more versatile and the designer’s plan to offer a greater allowance of function to the user. The designer can build a process or object that is programatized in an exceedingly clever way, but this need not entail programitization of the client’s use of it.

Design Constraints

What we call “good design” is as much about shaping human behavior and leading people around like cattle as it is about building useful, sturdy, beautiful objects that enrich our lives and allow us to extend our potential. People in design circles always assert that the purpose and use of a well-designed object should be apparent in the object’s own form. Someone who is reasonably acquainted with the practical context within which the object would be used should be able to identify easily how the object is to be used and what it might be used for. Additionally, the object should not accommodate uses that deviate from its intended purpose. This is so anyone equipped with the object does not confuse its function with that of another object or apply the object on the incorrect job. It is a reality of industrial design that when a designer sets out to design an item for practical use, she not only constructs the object to be optimally suited for the job she has in mind but also makes the item especially useless for anything else besides that job. These restrictions that are built in to the item’s form are called “design constraints.”

Donald Norman, one of the most influential writers in modern industrial design, uses the example of a thirteen-piece Lego motorcycle to illustrate the operative advantage of restrictive design constraints:

“…the appropriate role for every single piece of the motorcycle is unambiguously determined… people could construct the motorcycle without any instructions or assistance, although they had never seen it assembled” (The Design of Everyday Things, 84).

The motorcycle’s possible methods of assembly are limited sufficiently that there can be one correct arrangement and no others. Its design succeeds perfectly in enforcing the designer’s intended assemblage of the parts. However, as a toy, especially a Lego toy, the motorcycle obviously a failure. Its design constraints are so strict that they preclude play and improvisation in the item’s construction. If one can only build the toy within the parameters specified by the manufacturer, what is gained from buying the item disassembled? It seems to me that design constraints are actually sabotaging the effectiveness of the motorcycle as a play object. But I think this criticism could be extended beyond toys into practical objects and tools. Imposing a kind of deterministic plan of possible interactions an individual can have with an object is narrow, and it is coercive. It delimits the range of possible action available to a user and thwarts substantive improvisation. It suggests that the designer knows better than the practitioner and goes further to enforce that assertion by restraining the practitioner from accomplishing anything more than what the designer has already envisioned.