On Triangles in Squares

 

On Triangles in Squares and the Color of Air

Published in MONU 27: Small Urbanism, October 2017.

Historically, the central square is the most active area of a city. Spirited cultural events, contentious political demonstrations, and thriving commercial activity flavor each city’s most significant public spaces and construct an identity for the buildings, spaces, and streets creating an urban environment. As the public events that play out in these spaces help form collective memory and architectural character, the buildings become inextricably linked to urban activities that define the cultural history of the world’s most significant city centers. It’s impossible to comprehend the historical cultural and urbanistic importance of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Piazza del Campo in Siena, and Plaza de la Constitución in Mexico City without an awareness of the political unrest, cultural celebrations, and social exchange that each have respectively sponsored. Likewise, the material and spatial disposition of these urban centers is dependent upon the buildings that hold them captive. The world’s great historical urban centers are an amalgam of spatial qualities and physical objects bound to lingering memories of past events—a composite of the formal and the phenomenal.

Modern planning shifted emphasis away from stereotomically derived city centers to privately owned discrete urban objects. [1] Attention moved from celebrated spatial voids to expansive urban planes flecked with modern monuments. Observe the intended formal effects to alleviate the congestion of city centers and align urban planning with modern living in Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse (1924), Ludwig Hilberseimer’s Hochhausstadt (1924), or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City (1932). While each of these projects pursues unique conceptual territory, they are unified in their ambition to invert and subvert the typical figure-ground condition of historical cities, where urban space was hierarchically more significant as it pertained to legibility and celebrity. As a result of this inversion, singular buildings became even more hierarchically significant in regards to planning, and responsible for generating activity previously encouraged and hosted by the geometrically well-defined spaces carved from the urban fabric and made accessible to the public.

Contemporary architecture responded to the shift from space to object accordingly with formal and spatially complex constructions, admittedly disengaged from the context and functioning as miniature cities. In an excerpt from Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas ruminates on the conditions that enable the dislocation of a building from its context when he analyzes the Downtown Athletic Club’s collection and the skewering of diverse urban activities—a vertical urbanism that exploits contemporary cultures of congestion. [2] The relatively unscripted episodes of the horizontally defined urban spaces of the past gave way to the tightly defined and prescribed activities rehearsed and performed in restrictive plots stacked vertically within urban objects of the present. Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid (2009) in Beijing and OMA’s De Rotterdam (2013) exemplify and exaggerate the conditions of vertical urbanism and the effects of architecture achieving a scale that renders it as an urban development it and of itself. Both projects are conceived of as autonomous cities and social condensers, but neither actively participates in nor contributes to the broader urban experience of the cities in which they’ve been built.

As a result of the growing distances between these new super-sized buildings, the relationship between the inhabitant of the urban environment and the urban environment itself has been lost. Highly curated movements, controlled gatherings, and predictable episodes have replaced the informal and unexpected encounters that produced the social dynamism of our historic city centers. In an attempt to become more urban, larger works of contemporary architecture built in or near urban centers have demonstrated a diminished ability to participate in the construction of the urban experience, both formally, as a part within a larger whole, and phenomenally, as a facilitator of cultural, social, and political activity that engages an audience beyond its patrons. [3]

Alternatively, there are small, temporary projects that actively engage and enliven a version of urbanism more akin to the dynamic, unscripted models of the past. The annual Times Square Valentine Heart Competition in New York City and the Lakefront Kiosk Competition associated with the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial come to mind. [4] The winning projects of these competitions benefit from sites that are celebrated and heavily used as public spaces. In each scenario, small objects are situated within dynamic urban zones and alter the quotidian social exchanges that take place within—encouraging an active relationship between object and subject, and object and space. The temporary installations built in both New York City and Chicago suggest how architecture—even at a modest scale—can elicit urban activity. Of equal, if not greater significance is the manner in which similarly sized projects can impact culturally neglected and less acclaimed urban areas and enlist the attention of the general public.

 
Runaway was first installed at end of and atop Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara Harbor. Photograph from Elliot Lowndes.

Runaway was first installed at end of and atop Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara Harbor. Photograph from Elliot Lowndes.

 

Recent projects from a Syracuse-based design collaborative, SPORTS, hint at the renewed ability for architecture to serve as a protagonist in the construction of an urban experience through the production of small formations that host a range of activities. [5] One SPORTS project in particular shares an approach to reimagine the partnership between architecture and urbanism at a small scale. Runaway is the winning pavilion design for the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara (MCASB) International Pavilion Competition and traveled to several locations throughout Santa Barbara in 2017—Stearns Wharf, Estero Park, Elings Park, and Harding Elementary School to name a few. In each display location, three vibrantly colored steel rod matrices were installed in a bespoke orientation and configuration to correspond with the site to encourage diverse interactions.

 
The trio of objects that comprise Runaway blend into one another and dissolve into the horizon. Photograph from Elliot Lowndes.

The trio of objects that comprise Runaway blend into one another and dissolve into the horizon. Photograph from Elliot Lowndes.

 

Beyond its ability to connect to its immediate surroundings and elicit physical engagement, Runaway captures the atmosphere of its broader context by providing a stimulating visual to deautomatize the experience pedestrians typically have in and around the various sites Runaway occupied. Alluding to the desirable and pleasurable environmental conditions of Santa Barbara, SPORTS co-captain Molly Hunker states, “Our design emphasizes a vibrantly saturated visual environment that aims at ‘architecturalizing’ the aesthetic qualities of air in Santa Barbara.” This “architecturalizing” of environmental qualities conceptually links Runaway to its context and physically manifests lightness as the definitive shapes that make up the three objects dissolve into a composite figure of overlapping and blending colors. Unlike the monuments of the past that historicize an event or an individual, Runaway manifests the observable and sensational characteristics of place—materializing the intangible qualities of the sun and the air in a tangible object.

 
Elevation and color overlap studies. As one moves around the objects, cyan and magenta mix to become purple, while cyan and yellow blend into green. Image courtesy of SPORTS.

Elevation and color overlap studies. As one moves around the objects, cyan and magenta mix to become purple, while cyan and yellow blend into green. Image courtesy of SPORTS.

 
 
Orientation and clustering studies. Each object can be rotated onto each of its five faces. Image courtesy of SPORTS.

Orientation and clustering studies. Each object can be rotated onto each of its five faces. Image courtesy of SPORTS.

 

In its first installment at Stearns Wharf, Runaway transformed the static space of an ocean pier into an active area with urban characteristics. Runaway is a physical object—in this case, three objects—placed within a public space. The typological affiliations of this arrangement place Runaway in a very particular category of urban formations—the building in the square. [6] This urban typology exhibits an interruption of the dominant urban figure; in the case of the historical projects, it is a well-defined spatial void, and in the case of Runaway, it is a bent wooden pier hovering above Santa Barbara Harbor. When a solid figure becomes the focal point of the space, the spatial void is rendered as secondary ground. At Stearns Wharf, the three self-similar near-primitive forms were placed in close proximity to one another and aligned with the outermost permanent built work atop the pier, the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company, extending the prototypical condition of isolated figures populating a continuous ground. From leaning on the inclined plane of the yellow-painted object to sitting on the shelf of the magenta-painted object or climbing the vertical surface of the cyan-painted object, these orientations produce a variety of permissible ways to engage the project. Beyond the formal organization of the installation, Runaway’s debut location encouraged interaction between diverse user groups—fishermen, yogis, dog walkers, and tourists—as they confronted the unexpected arrival of the hazy forms. Runaway served as a productive interruption in a place where daily activity is routine and regimented.

In later installments at Estero Park, Elings Park, and Harding Elementary School, Runaway proved to be equally inspiring with regards to physical engagement and the ability to rally social exchange. The colorful trio served as a backdrop for photo shoots, art festivals, and exercise instruction, or simply as a beautiful sculptural object occupying the natural landscape. Along with organized happenings—and no doubt as a result of its scale being tuned to the body—Runaway hosted more informal, intimate activities: a date between two young adults, a small group of friends gathering for lunch, and a young man playing the guitar. At Estero Park, the forms were regimented, in line and equally spaced; at Elings Park, they clustered together and rotated open to a desirable view; and at Harding Elementary, they offset the boundary of the adjacent playground. The ability for these objects to reorient themselves not only to their site and user groups, but also to each other conveys a sincerity with which the designers addressed MCASB’s desire to attract a diverse audience and accommodate a variety of physical environments. The pavilion stands as symbol of the institution’s commitment to introduce arts programming into low-income and youth communities across the city of Santa Barbara.

 
Runaway sits atop a small plateau in Elings Park. Photograph from Elliot Lowndes.

Runaway sits atop a small plateau in Elings Park. Photograph from Elliot Lowndes.

 
 
Children engaging Runaway at Harding Elementary. Photograph from Audrey Lopez.

Children engaging Runaway at Harding Elementary. Photograph from Audrey Lopez.

 
 
Pier visitors sit, stand, and climb on Runaway at Stearns Wharf. Photograph from Elliot Lowndes.

Pier visitors sit, stand, and climb on Runaway at Stearns Wharf. Photograph from Elliot Lowndes.

 

Not only does Runaway captivate viewers with its vivid color fields and legible forms, it speculates on new tactics for architecture to critically engage and even create urban environments—mobility, inclusivity, and pageantry. Bringing together architectural objects and urban context, Runaway encourages awareness, curiosity, and investigation of its surroundings to actively defeat the current disjunction experienced between the two. And between sites, the transportation of these three vibrantly colored matrices becomes a spectacle in and of itself—a modest replication of the spectacle created by Michael Heizer as he moved the 340-ton granite boulder from Stone Valley Quarry in Jurupa Valley to its current resting place at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. [7].

The fact that Runaway is mobile, accessible to many different communities, and is incrementally site specific has contributed to the enthusiastic response from the public and the extension of the project beyond initial programming. Its vibrant color palette, lightness, playful arrangements, and simple forms define the success of Runaway as a dynamic project that encourages physical engagement and urban activity. While modern monuments impose themselves upon their audience, Runaway forms friendships with its visitors. And where the celebrated pavilions of larger cities are under the purview of their corporate sponsors, Runaway belongs to the public and evolves as invited artists and the broader community embrace it as part of the city. [8] The celebrity that Runaway achieved over the summer months serves to demonstrate the impact small architecture can make in the urban context. Beyond Santa Barbara, Runaway may serve as a prototype to reinstate the relationship between architecture, the urban environment and its inhabitants, and to recover the productive partnerships between figure and ground, object and subject, and form and phenomenon as seen in the great public spaces of the past. 

 
Runaway at Stearns Wharf with the Santa Ynez Mountains in the background. Photograph from Elliot Lowndes.

Runaway at Stearns Wharf with the Santa Ynez Mountains in the background. Photograph from Elliot Lowndes.

 

[1] In Rob Krier’s Urban Space, criticism is directed towards 20th century planning strategies, identifying them as “impoverished.” Krier expands on the erosion of public space as a result of the development of new, large building typologies such as factories and hospitals that disrupted the urban fabric of the cities within which they were inserted. Rob Krier, Urban Space (New York: Rizzoli, 1979) 17, 63, 72-73.

[2] Rem Koolhaas, “Definitive Instability: The Downtown Athletic Club” in Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (New York: Monicelli Press, 1994), 152-159.

[3] Here, “urban” is defined as having the characteristics of a city—dense collections of buildings and inhabitants, and diverse social, cultural, economic, and political activity. “Urbanism” then is defined as the study of the characteristic ways of interaction of inhabitants of urban areas with the built environment. (Source: Wikipedia)

[4] Winners of the Times Square Valentine Heart Design Competition include: Collective-LOK (2016); Stereotank (2015); Young Projects (2014); Situ Studio (2013); BIG (Bjarke Ingelx Group (2012); Freecell (2011); Moorhead & Moorhead (2010); and Gage / Clemenceau Architects (2009). The winners of the 2015 Lakefront Kiosk Competition were Ultramoderne. The winning entry was built alongside School Pavilions,” produced by IIT’s College of Architecture, SAIC’s Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture and Designed Objects and the UIC School of Architecture.

[5] SPORTS is the Syracuse-based design collaborative founded in 2010 by Greg Corso and Molly Hunker. Visit http://www.sportscollaborative.com to see their work.

[6] The object in the square is a typical urban configuration. For examples of buildings situated within urban spaces, see Battistero di San Giovanni at Piazza del Duomo in Florence, the Kabba at the Great Mosque of Mecca, Cloth Hall in the Main Market Square in Krakow, Palazzo Re Enzo in Bologna, Bonifatiuskirche at Luisenplatz in Weisbaden, and Evangelische Johannesgemeinde in Stuttgart.

[7] Levitated Mass (2013) is a film directed by Doug Pray that chronicles the process of moving a rock 105-miles over ten nights, through 22 cities and four counties on a football-field long, 206-wheeled vehicle. The movie captures this spectacle of construction and the general public's reactions to this massive display of art. Source: Doug Pray, “Levitated Mass,” http://www.dougpray.com/theboulder.html, (Retrieved August 20, 2017). Mobility as spectacle can also be seen in Aldo Rossi’s Teatro del Mondo (1979), a floating theater moored at Punta della Dogana in Venice, and in the relocation of Robert Venturi’s Lieb House (1969) from Barnegat Light, New Jersey to Glen Cove, New York. Source: Pilar Viladas, “Domesticites | Lieb House, Saved,” New York Times Magazine Blog, http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/08/domesticities-lieb-house-saved/ (Retrieved August 20, 2017)

[8] Over the summer, Runaway hosted contemporary Latinx artists to lead participatory arts programming aligned with their social art practices. Cruz Ortiz worked with Runaway on the pier, Tanya Anguiñiga in Estero Park, and Desert Art Lab at Harding Elementary.