Street: An Urban Exploration
The Preface from my thesis (1994) submitted to fulfill the requirements for the degrees of
Masters of Architecture and Masters of Urban Planning
"Yes, this is the place where we must breath, dream and lengthen the hours through an infinity of sensations. A musician has written the Invitation to the Waltz; where is he that shall compose the Invitation to the Voyage...?"1
VOYAGE... What is a voyage? Webster's dictionary defines voyage as; "A record or account of a journey of exploration or discovery." My thesis is just that - a record of my journey of exploration and discovery of Chippewa Street. Though it almost didn't get written. Over a year ago when I wrote my thesis proposal I stated: "In this thesis on urban design I propose to explore spatial options for Chippewa." Instead of starting with the traditional, what is the question, here is the answer thesis, I instead wondered about the possibility of what seemed to be a strange, though exciting idea- To explore and discover all I could about Chippewa Street. Then through my explorations suggest proposals for its redevelopment and therefore its future.
My thesis abstract was initially rejected. I was told that I did not have a thesis because I wasn't trying to prove anything. I tried to do it the tradition way but it just didn't seem right. It reduced a neighborhood rich with history and possibilities to a sterile object to be analyze. I deflected the rejections by saying that I had to go down to Chippewa Street and find out what needed to be found out. Discover who and what are there, what works, what is needed, and what might be needed in and for the future. So, against all the criticism, I set out to explore Chippewa Street. To experience all she had to offer. Then, hopefully, I would have my thesis.
"Thus begins the walk... This relationship of oneself to oneself governs the internal alterations of the place (the relations among its strata) or the pedestrian unfolding of the stories accumulated in a place (moving about the city). The experiences that determines spatial practices, develops its effects, proliferates, floods private and public spaces, undoes their readable surfaces, and creates within the planned city a "metaphorical" or mobile city, like the one Kandinsky dreamed of: a great city built according to all the rules of architecture and then suddenly shaken by a force that defies all calculations."2
Michel de Certeau helps to explain this notion of voyage and exploration. Throughout my journey on Chippewa Street I experienced this force of being suddenly shaken. I've come to realize that I have not only explored Chippewa Street itself but, I have discovered something about myself and my own understanding of practicing design too. When I think back on my education from beginning to end, it has definitely been shaped by exploration. The journey of discovery is highly valued within these hallowed halls of higher learning. I have been trained as an architect to explore materials, test limits, examine all possibilities, push beyond boundaries and be creative. I have also been trained as a planner to analyze social conditions, explore economic trends,design for both the social condition and the individual. In addition, I have been trained as an urban designer, combining the skills of both the architect and the planner. Undoubtedly, I am trained to set out on a journey of exploration and discovery of a rich, dense urban area.
This learned and innate understanding of exploring has been applied to my thesis. For over a year I have wandered along Chippewa Street. I have explored her present condition, wondered about her past and mused about her future. Thru this process I have discovered more than I could have imagined about Chippewa Street, myself, and the practice of design. The most valuable lessons I have learned is that it is not enough for a designer, whether she be an architect, planner or urban designer, to only do analysis of a place from statistical data. She must experience that place thru exploration, consider that place's spirit and realize that any action taken will impact all of those who use it. We are essentially designing for people, not just for aesthetics. Though a great designer finds a harmony in marrying the two.
Michel de Certeau wrote: "... if it is true that a spatial order organizes an ensemble of possibilities and interdictions, then the walker actualizes some of these possibilities. In that way, he makes them exist as well as emerge. But he also moves them about and he invents others, since the crossing, drifting away, or improvisations of walking privilege, transform or abandon spatial elements." 3
de Certeau clearly supports the practice of exploration. By exploring a space/place, one discovers much. More so than if one looked at pictures, maps, and economic forecasts. Through walking and wandering one begins to wonder about all the possibilities of that place. You are there, you are experiencing that place in that particular moment. You can begin to realize the possibilities. Architect Kevin Lynch also invites this notion of exploration into design. He says:
"... the creation of fantasy is a way of exploring future alternatives and suggesting new modes of action...
Thus the spatial environment need not be subjected to plans of awesome future extent. It is more rational to control the present, to act for near-future ends and to keep the longer future open, to explore new possibilities, to maintain the ability to respond to change. Environment can be a teaching device for supporting this attitude of mind, a set of clues for enlarging the future image. It can help to reduce the inequality of data available for the concepts of past and future."4
Through wandering and exploring infinite opportunities arise for the designer to communicate with those who populate the space/place they are designing for. Focusing on this simple act and being open you what you happen upon, holds infinite possibilities for changing the future. And, as Lynch suggests, for the betterment of all. Lynch continues:
"The model of perpetual revolution locates its values in the process itself - not in its results, but in the states of mind or patterns of social relations that accompany the process."5
It is within the process of exploration that opens the designers mind to undiscovered possibilities. Each time pregnant with the possibilities of even greater understanding and richer designs. It is a continual cycle.
As a designer invite the charge. Wander though and explore its possibilities. Keep in mind that designing the environment is an ongoing process. The best design is always found through interdisciplinary, never ending exploration. Social scientist Irwin Altman reinforces this idea:"... cities vary in a continual PROCESS of change and growth."6
In a discussion with Professor Perry, my thesis chair, about this paper, he joked about the idea of exploration by saying, "a mother's work is never done". As well it could also could be said that an urban designer's work is never done. If this is true, maybe a new title is needed for the urban designer - urbandesignerarchitectplannermanagerorganizeretc. Well, that's just silly. A new title may not be needed maybe just a new understanding on the process of design and that the practice of exploring is valid practice. Architect Kevin Lynch describes it best:
" A new profession may be developing: the manager of an ongoing environment (the spatial and temporal pattern of things and human actions), whose profession it is to help users to chang it in ways that fit their purpose. Such a person needs skill in design and in community organization, as well as in the traditional areas of administration and physical maintenance. The roles we are accustomed to - housing manager, maintenance man, caterer, museum director, renewal administrator, planner, architect, community organizer, social worker, developer - do not fit the bill. New skills, new motives, new finances, new rewards, new organizational support must all be created to make such a role possible."7