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Posts Tagged ‘urban design’


 

‘Habana is very much like a rose,’ said Fico Fellove in the movie The Lost City,

‘it has petals and it has thorns…so it depends on how you grab it.

But in the end it always grabs you.’


“One of the most beautiful cities in the world. You see it with your heart.”

Enrique Nunez Del Valle, Paladar Owner

Habana’s real essence is so difficult to pin down. Plenty of writers have had a try, though; Cuban intellectual Alejo Carpentier nicknamed Habana the ‘city of columns,’ Federico Llorca declared that he had spent the best days of his life there and Graham Greene concluded that Habana was a city where ‘anything was possible.’

ARCHITECTURE

Habana is, without doubt, one of the most attractive and architecturally diverse cities in the world. Shaped by a colorful colonial history  and embellished by myriad foreign influences from as far afield as Italy and Morocco, the Cuban capital gracefully combines Mudéjar, baroque, neoclassical, art nouveau, art deco and modernist architectural styles into a visually striking whole.

But it’s not all sweeping vistas and tree-lined boulevards. Habana doesn’t have the architectural uniformity of Paris or the instant knock-out appeal of Rome. Indeed, two decades of economic austerity has meant many of the city’s finest buildings have been left to festering an advanced state of dilapidation. Furthermore, attempting to classify Habana’s houses,palaces, churches and forts as a single architectural entity is extremely difficult.

Cuban building – rather like its music – is unusually diverse. Blending Spanish colonial with French belle epoque, and Italian Renaissance with Gaudi-esque art nouveau, the over-riding picture is often one of eclecticism run wild.

Brendan Sainsbury


















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The Flâneur: A Radical-Chic Icon

The Flâneur. Ink on trace paper. February 26, 2011

The Flâneur and his turtle in the streets of Paris. Digital collage. February 26, 2011. Background photo from San Francisco’s artist David Blumin. Click for his website.



Then I heard the phrase ‘Walk with a turtle’ on NPR, during an interview with Council of Dads’ author Bruce Feiler–and had an epiphany: I, too, had been a flâneuse in my early years. When I was 9 years old I used to tie a red ribbon to the shell of my turtle Stefania/Stefano (we are still not sure) and take her for ‘walks’ around my building and in the field of olive trees nearby. This cannot just be explained by mere coincidence or a sense of equanimity (i would take my giant schnautzer Zorro for walks- or rather, he would take me- and treated Stefania/Stefano to the same). By walking the city (ok , in my case the field of olive trees) at the pace of a tortoise, we are bound to pay attention to life around us, to read the city–not just skim it from the wheel of our car or glancing up from smartphones while we traverse sidewalks. Having a turtle as a guide nudges us to stop rushing. I am reminded of the buddhist monk in the documentary ‘Baraka’, slowly pacing the street with small steps , at the sound of a bell–in the midst of a hyperactive Japanese metropolis. The realization of possible multi-layered readings on the figure of the flaneur prompted a small research.

Historical evidence of The Flâneur? Or just man waiting for his wife? Undated image from: storify.com/virtualdavis/flaneur

The  Flâneur

The term comes from ‘flâner’, which means to stroll in French. From this verb Baudelaire coined the word  flâneur, a person who walks the city in order to experience it.  The flâneur is driven  by an  insatiable  hunger  for  passion; he  seeks  the  streets and  the  city  life  for they  provide  inspiration  and  cure him of the malaise and loneliness  of  being human. He practices mindfulness, or conscious dilly-dallying. In US they would call him a ‘loiterer’, surely shoo him away…or perhaps fine or even jail him (I always tell my students there is no such thing as the word ‘loitering’ in Italian….what else would we do in Piazzas!?). My friend Bruce and I were discussing the flâneur few days ago and he reminded me of  the symbology of the turtle and this quote from Rumi:

The soul needs as much time to wander as the feet.

Rumi

 

Baudelaire writes of the flâneur:

 The  crowd  is  his  element,  as  the  air  is  that  of  birds  and  water  of  fishes.

 His  passion  and passionate  spectator,  it  is  an  immense  joy  to  set  up  house  in  the  heart  of  the  multitude, amid  the  ebb  and  flow  of  movement,  in  the  midst  of  the  fugitive  and  the  infinite.

To  be away  from  home  and  yet  to  feel  oneself  everywhere  at  home;  to  see  the  world,  to  be  at the  centre  of  the  world,  and  yet  to  remain  hidden  from  the  world

impartial  natures which  the  tongue  can  but  clumsily  define.  The  spectator  is  a  prince  who  everywhere  rejoices  in  his  incognito.  The  lover  of  life  makes  the  whole  world  his  family,  just  like  the lover  of  the  fair  sex  who  builds  up  his  family  from  all  the  beautiful  women  that  he  has ever  found,  or  that  are  or  are  not  -­‐  to  be  found;  or  the  lover  of  pictures  who  lives  in  a magical  society  of  dreams  painted  on  canvas.

 

A Process of Navigating Erudition

From Wikipedia: Flâneur is not limited to someone committing the physical act of peripatetic stroll in the Baudelairian sense, but can also include a “complete philosophical way of living and thinking”, and a process of navigating erudition as described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s essay on “Why I Walk” in the second edition of The Black Swan (2010).  A Sunday Time review called The Black Swan  one of the twelve most influential books since WWII.

Benjamin  in his Arcades further describes the flâneur utilizes the city,  which becomes an  extension of  his residence:

The   street   becomes   a   dwelling   for   the   flâneur;   he   is   as   much   at   home   among   the facades  of  houses  as  a  citizen  is  in  his  four  walls.  To  him  the  shiny,  enameled  signs  of businesses  are  at  least  as  good  a  wall  ornament  as  an  oil  painting  is  to  the  bourgeois  in his  salon.  The  walls  are  the  desk  against  which  he  presses  his  notebooks;  news-­‐stands are  his  libraries  and  the  terraces  of  cafés  are  the  balconies  from  which  he  looks  down on  his  household  after  his  work  is  done.


Some of the questions I have been thinking about are : Can the flâneur be a flâneuse? Must he or she always haunt the city aloof and alone, or is ‘Flâneurie’ an activity that can be enjoyed in small groups, maybe of separate actors, each with his or her own turtle?

The flâneur is enjoying immense popularity on the Internet and blogosphere, among the hipster and (pseudo)intellectual crowd.  He is radical chic, a gentleman stroller whose eccentricity is afforded to him by indipendent wealth. He is a man of leisure who can make a statement about the bondage of work and busyiness: he is above it and does not need it.
On the other side of the coin, we might re-evaluate the ‘homeless’ people, the figure of the clochard (sounds better in French doesn’t it) as flâneurs without means, but with the same intellect and intent.  They also make the city their living room and library.

In “American Flaneur: The Cosmic Physiognomy of Edgar Allan Poe“, James V. Werner describes how ‘ highly self-aware, and to a certain degree flamboyant and theatrical, dandies of the mid-nineteenth century created scenes through outrageous acts like walking turtles on leashes down the streets of Paris. Such acts exemplify a flâneur’s active participation in and fascination with street life while displaying a critical attitude towards the uniformity, speed, and anonymity of modern life in the city.’

Hmm…Sounds like The Situationists.

A new interpretation of the activities of the flâneur appear in the writings of Guy Debord, the dérive also being a protest against the processes of consumption and capitalism:

One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive [literally: “drifting”], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

–Guy Debord

While the flaneurs practiced ‘aimless wandering’, the Situationists devised processes to purposefully get lost.

There is no English equivalent for the French word flâneur. Cassell’s dictionary defines flâneur as a stroller, saunterer, drifter but none of these terms seems quite accurate. There is no English equivalent for the term, just as there is no Anglo-Saxon counterpart of that essentially Gallic individual, the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothinincluding his time which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savoring the multiple flavors of his city.

Cornelia Otis Skinner.

Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals, 1962

Watching is the chosen pleasure of flâneur. He is an ‘urban stalker’, as Susan Sontag defines him in her 1977 essay On Photography.  Modern flâneurs, let’s arm ourselves with cameras or a moleskine . Let’s pretend we are all ‘The Sartorialist’ and many, many other envoys on particular missions. Would you enjoy the streets of your city if you thought you were spying on someone, an urban detective, privy to secrets no-one else can know? What would the intelligence gathered from today? What stories could you tell(or draw)? What stories would the city reveal to you. There is so much life out there. And buildings are lessons.

Let the urban voyeurism begin.
Here are some useful links:

And, finally, my very own books for Parisian flanerie.

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Ink and coffee on paper.

One more post before the month is over. I still have a lot of sketches to share and  am working on finding time to do some more collages (wow, the previous sentence needs to have more conviction to it!). Lots of changes going on around the world…. I am just sitting and seeing it all turn.
Wanted to share some words I received today:


Events of these past weeks remind us that as designers, faculty, engineers, authors, landscape architects, students, and architects we build landscapes and cities that fuel revolutions. Of knowledge and of hope…..Act of civil disobedience in Tunis and in Cairo are fueled by the spark of indignity. And in their Main Squares, we are reminded that Cities are embodied energy too. Below are words on cities. There are many.
 
Come, let yourself fall with me into the lunar scar of our city, scratched by sewers, crystal city of vapor and mineral frost, city witness to all we forget, city of carnivorous cliffs, city of immobile pain, city of immense brevity, city of the motionless sun, city of the long burning, city of the slow fires, city up to its neck in water, city of playful lethargy, city of black nerves, city of three umbilical scars, city of yellow laughter, city of twisted stink, city between air and worms, city of ancient lights ,old city nested among birds of omen, new city next to sculpture dust, city reflection of gigantic heaven, city of dark varnish and stonework, city beneath glistening mud, city of guts and tendons, city of violated defeat, city of submissive markets, city reflecting fury city of anxious failure, city woven with amnesia….
 
Carlos Fuentes
See you in February!

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Steel frame poetry. Click for more info ore read below.

Choi+Shine, a Massachusetts-based design studio has recently received the Boston Society of Architects Unbuilt Architecture Award for their creative concept Land of Giants™, transforming the generic steel-framed electricity pylons across the Icelandic landscape into unique, individual humanised forms.

Read the World Architecture News article here.

In contrast to the poetry of the unbuilt, and whenever I see vision in design and architecture, there are the missed opportunities of the city around me. In my History of Architecture class I like to tell students that Architecture is built politics. By this I mean that the architecture of the civilizations we study, even the built environment around us, is the embodiment of a people’s values, belief system, socio-economic conditions (or agendas). Architecture can literally be considered ‘the body politik’.
During a recent conversation with a colleague the meaning of absence came up, that is, the absence of benches or piazzas in downtown San Diego. America’s Finest City enjoys the perfect temperate weather, is gifted with a beautiful natural setting, and yet its downtown does not invite enjoyment, people watching, outside of commercial establishment. This is a city that is, peculiarly, not urban at all, but fragmented, servile to cars, at times alienating. In the heart of its historical quarter, the Gaslamp, the city does not yield; no place to sit and pause to take it in.

There could be such place: Horton Plaza.

Downtown San Diego. Horton Plaza is in the 'Core'. Balboa Park is visible on the upper right corner. from onlinesandiegohomes.com

Horton Plaza/Fountain Side is a potential piazza whose use is twarthed by the deliberate use of ‘discomfort’ tactics: rough landscaping and the absence of benches, or seating at human-being level. I see tourists crouching down on curb edges everytime I walk by. There is a plan by the CCDC to ‘reenvision” the public park to make it more attractive‘.

Horton Plaza, facing the U.S Grant Hotel. San Diego, 1910. Fountain and plaza design by Irving Gill, who proposed four tiled walks (the city approved two, not tiled). Notice the cordoned-off lawn, and the absence of benches, even back then. sandiegodailyphoto.blogspot.com

Horton Plaza before 2008, with fountain still operable. It is flanked by a mall by the same name ( I love when malls appropriate the names of public space they displace, names such as 'Plaza', 'Avenues', 'Boulevard' etc.). Tall, unattractive plantings and no benches make the use of this piazza impossible. From http://sdhs1960.org/photos/yesterdaytoday.html. Adding ugliness to infamy, the fountain has remained fenced and inoperable for two years with no immediate plans for restoration. From signonsandiego.com

Horton Plaza/’Farmer Market’ Side is an open space eager to be a piazza, yet at the stage of ‘Piazza. Interrupted’. Why? The absence of seating, appropriate lighting, or a focal point in this location (a fountain? a modern sculpture?) renders this an open space to be traversed as quickly as possible, day or night, where spontaneous gathering is not encouraged (except for the commercially-viable weekly Farmers’ Market half-days or the inescapable ritual of the holiday ice-rink).

Horton Square, between the Horton Plaza Mall and the NBC building in Downtown San Diego. From shindohd@ flickr.com.

But Horton Square has potential, at least it’ s not a permanently-in-shade, unusable ‘public space’ such as those found among high-rises in financial districts nation-wide. You know what I’m talking about.

Wells Fargo 'Plaza', Financial district, San Diego. from frwl @ flickr.com.

Upon reading ‘ Why Public Spaces Fail’, it seems like San Diego has used this article as a blueprint to eschew its public responsibility and alienate the public sphere.
Of course anytime public space is brought up, the issue of the homeless is dragged out like a decaying corpse from the cellar, to once more make an appereance in trite arguments. The refrain goes ‘ We cannot have any public space in San Diego because of the homeless’. Meaning, if you build it, they (the homeless) will come. And we can’t have that. It’s as if the city, to paraphrase Ani di Franco’s words, instead of curing the disease, is bent on suppressing any evidence of the symptoms.
Of course we have the public, but touristy, Seaport Village and our cultural, manicured, Balboa Park. Both are not integrated with the urban fabric of downtown San Diego, that is they are destinations, not generators (can I say incubators?) of urban moments within the streets/flow of the city.
Balboa Parkis a wonderful (or maybe just pretty, depends on the days and my mood) public space, also designed by Irvin Gill,  and yet it is a place apart, an idyllic, bucolic, museum-filled oasis . I have not tried to go there at night, but I suspect that, in addition to dangerous, the park closes at night (like most American parks, something that doesn’t happen for public spaces in Europe). There are no night activities encouraged in Balboa, except for going to eat at The Prado restaurant, which stops serving food around ten. This could also says something about San Diego early bird ethic, and limited vision when it comes to cultural events. Balboa Park could be made an integral part of Downtown by better, more frequent transportation and by its transformation into a cultural hub, with stores and museums open at night. There are already good news: the main plaza of the park, originally designed as a public space and made in recent decades into an ugly valet parking lot is to be restored to its original use (!!). San Diego will finally have a true piazza (hopefully with seating opportunities) and I for one plan to go there sketching as often as possible.

The lack of piazzas or urban public spaces is not of course a San Diego phenomenon, or a Southern Californian one, but a North-American one. Why criminalize the act of spontaneous gathering, why call it ‘loitering’? We do not have this word in the Italian language, not with the negative connotation. What else but healthy loitering and thinking is done in piazzas in Italy? We can speculate, get political, be conspiracy theorists. We could talk about the privatization of public space. We could wax poetic about missing piazzas and the public consciousness of European cities.

Or we could-maybe- all agree on the beauty of (un)built poetry.

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