Risky Business

Roger Sherman's picture

With cities developing today at a rate that is outpacing architects' and planners' efforts to shape them, there is no longer sufficient time to plan. As a result, architecture's role in the city has fundamentally changed from that of designing buildings which both engage and are a product of their context, to that of creating commodified experiences--like everything else, tied first and foremost to speculation in future identity, and real estate values.

With this comes an atmosphere of higher risk-but also (often unrecognized by architects) higher reward. As cities from Bilbao to London Bridge (AZ) attest, developers today--and even many municipal officials--believe it to be a better bet to invest the urban future in new experiences and places that will achieve critical mass as popular destinations, than to merely improve upon neighborhoods and commercial streets that are already in place. In lieu of communities and commercial areas developing over time, in small increments, as cities used to be made, instead we are witnessing the development of larger enclaves aimed at creating worlds-in-themselves, entirely unrelated-socially, architecturally, in every way--to what is around them. Short election cycles, REITS and onerous entitlements processes all encourage larger projects which offer economies of scale; the ability to achieve a "critical mass" of visual effects sufficient to create an immersive experience; and the control over land necessary to minimize the uncertainties of working more surgically within an existing context.

Rather than mourn the oft-discussed problems associated with this development, however, it would be more worthwhile to find ways of harnessing (rather than resisting) these logics and behaviors, with the goal of creating the new forms of community that have always been characteristic of vibrant cities. Indeed, the most successful developments today are designed and conceptualized in such a way as to not merely capture a predetermined demographic demand, but to generate a market "buzz". They deal with the risk posed by the pace and unpredictability of today's urban development not by hedging their bets, but by creating new or latent markets, along with the forms of collectivity associated with them.

These enclaves, referred to in planning parlance as overlay zones, at the moment generally fall into two categories. The first is embodied in enclaves of singular identity (of which golf or retirement communities, usually gated, are well-known examples), which constitute the predominant model of residential development today. The second, the darling of commercial developers, is characterized by a hyper-identity--a kitchen-sink urbanism descendant from the theme park, whose success as an attraction has led to its replication on other urban sites throughout the U.S. (in Los Angeles, Citywalk and The Grove are known to every Angeleno). In the first case, the identity of the place is unique, but the problem is that it is exclusive and not open to the greater public. The other model is more of a wolf-in-sheep's clothing: its scenography pretends to be diverse, organic and open, when in fact public access is as highly controlled as in the first case; the vibrant urban experience it promises is one which seldom exceeds style.

As unsatisfying-and often unsettling--as the results of this brave new urbanism have been, their undeniable popular and economic success merits further consideration, because they reflect the fact that, in today's world of subcultures and self-interest, the inflation of identity and tactics of negotiation matter more to the urban game than location or context. For architects operating in this milieu, the challenge is how these tendencies may be harnessed toward the construction of urban community and experiences which achieve viability and secure their futures through openness rather than through exclusion. The Bilbao Effect notwithstanding, what matters is not the application of an architect's signature style, but the clever use of design as a pheromone that will attract a wide range of potential audiences. To do this, it must be cunningly conceived, and make use of strategies and tactics such as those below:

Radical Incrementalism
A design strategy that utilizes accumulation as means of producing character and identity. Taking advantage that developers are creatures of habit, Radical Incrementalism promotes the invention and use of norms as a means of instigating, creating and managing imageability instead of master plans---successful solutions that others will copy.

The Decoy (the bait)
The Decoy builds upon the semiotics of Venturi and Scott Brown's Duck, but redeploys its strong imageability performatively-in order to lure new audiences, and create its own market.

The Tradeoff (quid pro quo)
A strategy of embedment, aimed at winning the support of NIMBYists and public agencies that as a rule oppose development. Rather than assume the more conciliatory ("just blend in") approach to gaining public trust emblematized through contextualism, the Tradeoff is predicated upon the assumption of a high risk / higher reward approach. It shamelessly builds in, through design, collateral benefits that "sweeten the pot" for stakeholders by blatantly appealing to their self-interestedness, in exchange for their support.

The Trojan Horse
A strategy, like the Tradeoff, by which to assuage community/political opposition, the Trojan Horse is a stealthier approach to the same end. Whereas in the Tradeoff the pros and cons are openly acknowledged and weighed, the Trojan Horse proffers something entirely desirable, whose fuller implications-all strategized from the outset and quite the opposite of initial appearances---only later become apparent. New York's Central Park was a Trojan Horse, in that it was strategized to give a different guise to the massive development project that was planned to follow. Importantly, however, the Park also continues today in a different dimension of the same role; namely, it has come to serve as a built-in antidote of openness to what would otherwise be an exclusive and privileged enclave.

The Tie that Binds
A second important means of opening the enclave, is by creating for it an imageability which does not derive from or reinforce preconceived and caricatured subcultures or lifestyles. If the enclave is to claim its urban promise, it will be by inventing and testing unlikely formal and material conditions which possess strong ambient character, but at the same time cleverly "crosscut" through differing demographics. Like "Jeopardy" categories, they should inspire new categories of ecology and economy that are form/environment- specific rather than lifestyle specific. The Tie That Binds refers to a way of thinking about design where one formal characteristic is exaggerated to the point that it becomes imageable and attractive to a peculiar and not-entirely-predictable set of audiences.

Roger Sherman is founder of Roger Sherman Architecture and Urban Design in Santa Monica, CA; and Co-Director of cityLAB, an urban design and research thinktank at UCLA.

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