22 June 2010

MAKING A BUILDING AND CONTRIBUTING TO THE PUBLIC PLACE

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Portland Oregon / photo by Doug Joyce



Basic architectural training dictates that a building has four sides. Most often applied to the compass points, north, south, east, west. From there, we can add more sides, and even round down the edges of the sides so that they are harder to differentiate from each other.

An architect is trained to think of each building as a discrete whole, bounded by it's sides and top. An object understood on its own; more simply put, four walls and a roof. A program is understood, the needs of the inhabitants are thought through, and a shape is made to wrap what goes on inside. If the program is lavish, if the architect is a sculptor and makes a statement with each work, the shape is fully considered from all sides. This isn’t about the rugged self-reliance of the architect. Those who commission the building, and those who build it see it as a very singular act, governed by vague notions about ‘fitting in’.

But none of us really experience a building on its own like that, even if we’re disposed to.

It is that vast public ‘outdoor room’ that we experience, that place that is long then short, wide then narrow, straight then crooked, consistent then broken, beautiful then ugly, a pain to move through then wonderfully accommodating. It is dynamic with sounds and smells and vistas. Sometimes it is empty, but many times it is filled with people and their conveyances. Sometimes the people it it are standing still or sitting, but often they are moving, experiencing the constant progression through this dynamic outdoor room.

We innocently believe that this building we conceive achieves its alpha and omega by simply accommodating its functional needs, flattering the personal taste of its owner, and having a front door to make the connection to the outside. But while we satisfy ourselves with the notion of conceiving and building the private realm with its public skin, our understanding of the situation has taken us to... beta.

The public realm, I call it the ‘Public’ is in fact one huge and interconnected series of sculptures, all turned inside out. We have a chance to move through them nearly every day; we experience their spatial dynamics, the brilliant assault on our senses. It is not just buildings. Or even buildings, streets and trees. It is all those things and more, conspiring to synergistically combine to make intoxicating places that we somehow take for granite.

It may be easier to think of cities as groups of buildings with bands of pavement and landscaping in between them. If you're more sophisticated you might even classify your collection of individual endeavors by scale as blocks, districts, and regions-- or if you’re sophisticated in a different way you believe that all of these individual pieces can be done creatively, a laissez-faire approach will lead us to the path of greatness. But both approaches cheat us from a real understanding of what is really going on. The Public is one of the great experiences of the city; it is one of the best things about living in one!

Every building exists in context. Every building makes a contribution to the sculptural experience that is the Public, that fantastic place we inhabit while we travel, make commerce, or commune with our fellow urban inhabitants. Every building makes its contribution to this willingly, or with a grudge.

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