A Mostly Enjoyable Lecture

03-29-2005

Last night, Interboro attended a very interesting lecture by the Center for Land Use Interpretation at Columbia’s Wood Auditorium. No. Make that a pretty interesting lecture. Actually, maybe what it was was a mostly enjoyable lecture. According to its website, the Center for Land Use Interpretation is “a research organization involved in exploring, examining, and understanding land and landscape issues.” As explained in the lecture, they do these things in a variety of ways. In addition to giving lectures, they sponsor field trips, organize exhibitions, and publish books with names like The Nellis Range Complex: Landscape of Conjecture, and Subterranium Renovations: The Unique Architectural Spaces of Show Caves. Interboro was familiar with the organization (apparently most people in the research, design development business are), but it hadn’t heard them speak before, and it certainly hadn’t met them. As such, their lecture seemed like a good opportunity to do both, despite epic rainfall, and the dreaded Greenpoint – Columbia commute (late notice that the lecture would be followed by a catered reception for the CLUI’s new Columbia exhibition sealed the deal). Interboro arrived a bit late. Up first was Matt Coolidge, who introduced the CLUI, and talked a bit about what they did. He showed slides of the CLUI’s field trips to places like the Salt Flats, as well as slides of various “extrapolated projects” that the center had made, including “The Land Marker Project,” which commemorates significant but obscure land use phenomena with plaques, and “The Sound-Emitting Device Project,” an “on-going series of out-door site installations that alter the landscape by the infusion of a sonic element.” Erik Knutzen, who spoke next, spoke about “Emergency State: First Responder and Law Enforcement Training Architecture,” the newest (and possibly silliest) extrapolation. The project (and the slideshow) consists of photographs of what used to be called Hogan’s Allies: miniature towns that were (and are) built to teach cops and firemen how to respond in “real life” environments. Some of these environments were pretty funny. As Knutzen pointed out, most of them are “compressed” suburbs, with fake fast food restaurants, gas stations, bars, and even doctor’s offices occupying what look like rows of contiguous concession stands. But showing slides of funny little towns doesn’t make for that good of a lecture. And here was the problem: the land uses the Center for Land Use Interpretation presented were interesting enough, but there wasn’t much interpretation going on. At its worst points, the lecture was about as intellectually stimulating as a slideshow of someone’s post-graduation cross-country road trip. This is fine, I guess, but what’s disappointing is that there is so much interpretation to be done! For a group dedicated to “the increase and diffusion about how the world’s lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived,” Interboro had hoped to have more of a response than “that’s cool!” But it wasn’t to be. This was true of “Emergency State,” but it was true generally. To cite another example, much ado was made about what Coolidge called “analog hydrology models”: pre digital, large-scale models made by the Army Corps of Engineers to test flood levels in, among other places, the Chesapeake Bay, the San Francisco Bay, and the Mississippi River Basin. Coolidge introduced these models as artifacts that the CLUI is interested in, and showed pictures of them as he talked about when they were built, what they were built for, and other generalities. The pictures were nice to look at, and learning about the existence of these things was certainly worth while, but again, how about some interpretation? Where the analog models are concerned, Interboro would like to hear more about what these things mean. How did they inform the Corps’ practice? What projects in, say, the Mississippi River Basin were influenced by them? How did they help write their respective territories? OK Interboro is being a little disingenuous here, as these are questions that were posed by Anu Mathur and Dillip da Cunha in their book Mississippi Floods, but also in their studio about the very same Mississippi River Basin model, which Interboro took at the Harvard Design School in 2002. But these are great questions. Asking them, or questions like them, would make the CLUI more interesting, if less enjoyable.

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