Interboro at Studio-X

02-27-2010

Thanks to everyone who made it out for last Tuesday’s Studio-X event. Interboro was happy to have a chance to present all of the hard work it did for the 2009 International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam. Special thanks to Mathan Ratinam and Andrea Zalewski, who introduced and screened their excellent movie Cities of Preference, and to Studio-X’s Gavin Browning, who made the event possible, and who was a very gracious host.   To the right you will see some photos of the event. These were taken by Ho Kyung Lee, Columbia GSAPP. Preparing for this presentation gave Interboro a chance to reflect on the IABR, and distill its contribution: “Community: The American Way of Living.” Here’s what it came up with: It has been Interboro’s distinct pleasure to research community and the open city for the 2009 International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam. As we tip the rural / urban scale towards the urban for the first time in history, it is a good time to test the ideal of the open city against urban phenomena (squatter settlements, sprinkler cities, exurbs etc.) that Christopher Alexander and Jane Jacobs could hardly have anticipated when they theorized the open city half a century ago. Our research focuses on America, which is now more than 60 percent suburban, and where new master-planned communities continue to sort Americans by narrowly-defined lifestyles. According to Bill Bishop, whose book The Big Sort was recently endorsed by Bill Clinton, America is “becoming increasingly crowded with people who live, think, and vote as we do,” and has become “so polarized, so ideologically inbred, that people don’t know and can’t understand those who live just a few miles away.” What hope do accessibility, tolerance, and diversity have in such a climate? This is the question at the heart of “Community: The American Way of Living.” But our research suggests that while such large-scale suburbanization does indeed pose challenges to the ideal of the open city, it also offers opportunities. Jane Jacobs celebrated “generators of diversity” might not have much relevance in an environment where mixed primary uses, small blocks, aged buildings, and concentration are few and far between, but we wonder whether there might be other, less tried and true means of bringing about more openness in the built environment. Indeed, what if architects and planners reframed the open city as something simpler, lighter, more everyday? What if, instead of striving to cook up the open city with ancient recipes like the “generators of diversity,” architects and planners strived to single out the open, inclusive experiences that people have in the course of their everyday lives, and then thought up ways to multiply and enrich those experiences? As Robert Venturi said, “learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect.” Could the open city be subtly slipped into a suburban commute? A trip to the supermarket? These are the questions we asked-and continue to ask-in our research on the open city in America. This begins with Towards an Everyday open city, our ongoing selection of architectural projects that attempt to open the suburbs. Relying for the most part on de Certeauian “tactics of the weak,” these projects all co-opt everyday phenomena-fences, pool sheds, big box stores-in an attempt to slip open city experiences into peoples’ everyday lives. The purpose of our installation The Arsenal of Exclusion / Inclusion is twofold. On the one hand, we wish to use this dictionary of 101 things that open or close the city to remind people that there are indeed good reasons to be critical of the suburbs. Especially in the 20th century, America developed an impressive array of institutions and policies that were successfully deployed to maintain spatial segregation, and that afforded anxious communities the ability to restrict access to those deemed undesirable. From overt “weapons” like Racial Zoning, Racial Covenants, and Racial Steering that have been used to restrict African Americans’ access to emerging suburban housing markets in the 1950s to more subtle ones like Conditions, Covenants, and Restrictions that are used today to maintain class-based suburban segregation, 20th century urbanization in America cannot be understood without understanding these weapons that segregated America’s metropolitan areas. On the other hand, with the Arsenal we wish to highlight those weapons that have been deployed to open the suburbs: Forced Busing, Community Benefits Agreements, Community Development Banks, Good Neighbor Agreements, Home Value Insurance, Homebuying Workshop, Housing Court, Housing Vouchers, Inclusionary Zoning: these are just a handful of tools devised to open the suburbs. Our ongoing research into these later weapons focuses on everyday phenomena that, quite unlike the weapons mentioned above, are working for the open city unintentionally. Things like GPS navigation, Flat Fares, Halloween, Jury Duty, and Designated Smoking Zones are not typically thought of as things that open the city, but here we demonstrate that they perhaps are, and that architects would be wise to co-opt them. Another installation, a mural called The Open City Pops Up Where and When You Least Expect it is meant to highlight existing shopping plazas, strip malls, movie theatres, stadiums, and other everyday suburban spaces around the country that evidence some aspect of the open city. The point here is to say that while it is true that when given a choice, most Americans choose to reside in a homogeneous community over a more mixed one, the sorts of encounters with the unfamiliar that are so important to open city theorists like Iris Marion Young and Gerald Frug abound in the semi-public, everyday, commercial landscape in which most Americans spend most of their time.

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