More thoughts on the edge (with a little gloom attached)

The comment thread on the On the edge (of cities) post right below shows there is a lot of passionate interest in the topic — Thomas Sieverts’ idea that architects need to lift their eyes from the city core and regard the outer limits of the city with the same intensity and, well, we’ll say it, love that they have for the traditional European city center. Whether that interest is also broad we’ll test with another post on the matter, this one arising from two Monday night events: Metro president David Bragdon speaking with Portland Spaces editor Randy Gragg at Jimmy Mak’s; and a big-name concluding panel at PNCA that featured Sieverts, architect Brad Cloepfil, Reed Kroloff (who runs Cranbrook Academy, supervised our tram design competition and who was dean of architecture at Tulane when Katrina hit), and Matthew Stadler as moderator.

The topic of both the panel and the Bragdon-Gragg exchange went something like this: What can governments do to encourage good design? And it frequently kept to the question, though this “healthy” topic also generated a number of tasty digressions and frankly was never as dry as the question seemed to promise. And thanks to Stadler, the Sieverts analysis/prescription was always lurking in the background.

I know from the clock on the wall that I won’t be able to give a full account of what happened in this post (I know what you’re thinking: O sweet mother of the Titans, don’t tell me there’s a third post brewing; what is this, the Halprin fountains?), but I will get a few thoughts out there, and perhaps the Scatter regulars at the event can fill in some details.

I’ll start with my own “revelation.” Which the more I think about it is pretty obvious. During Bragdon-Gragg I wanted to ask the following “question.” We know that when the Couch-Burnside couplet idea (which turns Couch into a major arterial downtown and across the river and makes Burnside a one-way street) starts to enter the public domain that there will be an immediate, massive response from Portlanders, one way or another, that will affect the deliberation and, if it’s allowed to, the design of the project (if it’s built). But if you proposed a similar radical idea for the TV Highway (from say highway 217 to Hillsboro), who would really care? How could it possibly happen without substantial public and government support by all the jurisdictions along the way? How does an agency like Metro deal with such poles of interest?

I didn’t get a chance to ask the question, but by the end of the panel a few hours later, I had my answer. The passion that will make the passage of the Burnside-Couch couplet idea a contentious slog for promoters (and for the record, I am NOT convinced that it would be a good thing) would be missing from a Master Plan process for the TV Highway (I think). And that means it might be possible to DO it — without an endless process, without lawsuits, without mobilization of competing constituencies who make it hard to maintain the political will to do something important, etc. The great thing about unloved places is that they are less likely to resist change.

I think this “answer” would bother Matthew, who in his heart of hearts wants the people of Aloha, say, to love the TV Highway as much as he does. Who wants them to be active, interested participants in decisions that change their lives. Who in fact thinks that good design can ONLY come about through that participation, because good design is functional design and only those involved have insights into what is truly most useful to them. In fact he concluded the panel with the following question, which I paraphrase: how do you manufacture public will in a place that has so successfully championed atomization? And I suppose I’m saying, maybe sometimes good design can create the public will that will turn good design into better design somewhere down the road.

It was tough going to come up with a conclusion this “positive,” even after the optimism of Bragdon in the first event. Bragdon sees a vacant lot in Gresham and sees opportunity, he sees ways to connect our system of parks and trails to make them a more central part of our lives, he even believes the Columbia Crossing project, assuming federal money for a gigantic bridge project will still be there, can be designed well. Gragg occasionally attempted to knock him off of “sunny,” but Bragdon was unruffled, defending Light Rail decisions deftly and also gracefully conceding that bus lines in some places would work better.

The panel plunged into gloom almost immediately with Stadler’s first question: what went right with the aerial tram? “You want to talk about what went right?” Cloepfil asked. “I could start with that.” And you knew he had a devastating critique of what went wrong to pull out (which he did: The tram was just a commercial ornament; the planning didn’t extend to the urban design at either end of the tram… in the end it was promotion for South Waterfront more than anything else). Kroloff managed the tram competition, which he thinks produced an excellent design (he’s right, in my book), but he conceded Cloepfil’s point and marveled at the crowds that turned up for public presentations and hearings during the tram building process. But this was a mixed blessing because it narrowed the focus of the project. Cloepfil helpfully pointed out that the logical conclusion of the tram competition was a competition to master design the entire district or at least the public spaces inside it.

This led to a long section on design competitions, which Sieverts pointed out are at the heart of the process in Germany. But the more he talked, the more it became apparent to Cloepfil and Kroloff how different things were in Europe, where an informed jury presides over the process, an educated public responds to design proposals and the government is prepared to eliminate policy hurdles for the good of the project. Here, a competition simply “covers a lot of politicans’ ass (es)”, Cloepfil said. But the real tension was this: How important, how necessary, is public input? And the panelists were divided, each within himself. So, for example, Cloepfil applauded the public interest in the Clyfford Still museum he is designing in Denver, while groaning over the results in other places. And Kroloff related his experience attempting to produce a plan for the rebuilding of New Orleans after Katrina, which ended unhappily, and after he’d left, with a plan that he deplores.

Sieverts held out. “The culture of architecture must be deeply rooted in the local culture,” he said. Then the design becomes better, “not just a sour compromise.” But by this time a melancholy had set in about the role of the public. And we flirted briefly with benevolent dictatorships, enlightened oligarchs and other examples of personal will overcoming the chaos or the indifference or the ignorance of the public. Transportation planners and the AIA were excoriated by Kroloff, who also suggested that sometimes benevolent dictators aren’t so benevolent, citing Robert Moses (who at one point seemed on the verge of annihilating the very neighborhoods in Portland that we now revere) as a case in point. Cloepfil pointed to the success of the arts district in Dallas, Tex., which was accomplished by civic leaders, political and otherwise, without public engagement. (He contributed an arts magnet high school to the mix of museums and performance spaces.)

This was all too much for Stadler, firm in his democratic convictions, who argued for an ecology of leadership rather than one single charismatic leader and for the importance of public debate as part of the process simply to help generate “meaning” for the subsequent designs. And Cloepfil agreed that public tension can provoke an idea unless that public response becomes a “normative hum.” You have to love this guy!

Excellent questions from a very distinguished audience followed, all playing with the idea of how to make great design practical in the modern American city, specifically Portland, holding forth on the importance of constituencies (Gragg) and the importance of robust institutions public or not (Arun Jain), among other things.

And Sieverts, appropriately concluded things by redirecting us to the suburbs, where we already have more than enough of everything — cars, square footage in our houses, roads. “People in their inner wisdom know we cannot go on living this way,” he said. “We need to change the way we live.” And he envisioned a city that managed to be dense and service-heavy at the center with a telecommuting edge closer to open landscapes. And the interventions he suggested were “soft” ones — better pedestrian and cycling paths, better access to open landscapes, connecting the elements of our sprawl in a better way.

At one point Sieverts said something that reminded me of a line from a poem by the late William Stafford. He suggested that enormous changes were coming, but in thousands of small steps. Stafford put it a little less optimistically: We want a particular outcome and it’s going to take a million tiny perfect moves to get there. I end up, I suppose, somewhere in the middle of these two wise men.